Felix Auger-Aliassime had a chance before Daniil Medvedev snatched it away.
It was the first of two men’s semifinals at the U.S. Open on Friday. Auger-Aliassime, trying to become the first Canadian man to reach the U.S. Open final, faced the World No. 2 Medvedev, who was looking to win his first Grand Slam.
Though Medvedev had cruised to an opening set 6-4 victory, Auger-Aliassime remained poised, like he’s done the whole tournament. Up 3-2, Auger-Aliassime broke Medvedev’s serve for the first time in the match. No easy task. Auger-Aliassime was on the cusp of leveling the match at one set all, up 5-3 serving for the set. With two set points on his racquet, Auger-Aliassime committed two costly unforced errors, including a missed put-away volley.
Those mistakes gave Medvedev an opportunity to pounce. The Russian rallied to win four straight games, taking the second set 7-5.
Auger-Aliassime never recovered. Even in the third set, when the Canadian had a break point down 3-1, Medvedev found a way to hold serve.
The No. 2 seed defeated the Canadian in straight sets 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 advancing to his third Grand Slam final. Auger-Aliassime’s dream run at the U.S. Open comes to an end, but the formative knowledge and experience gained at this tournament will serve him well going forward.
“It’s tough to lose,” Auger-Aliassime said in his post-match press conference. “As much as I would have wanted to win today, I didn't. Now I need to accept the reality, which is I lost. I can do better, and for sure I will."
For Auger-Aliassime, 2021 has been a year for growth. Coming into the season, he never made the second week of a Grand Slam. Auger-Aliassime cemented himself as one of the sport’s rising young stars in 2019 when he made three ATP Tour tournament finals and the final of Davis Cup. This year, the Montreal native wanted more.
At the start of the year, Auger-Aliassime and his coach, Frederic Fontang, approached Toni Nadal. Known as “Uncle Toni,” the Spaniard is the uncle and former coach of Rafael Nadal, winner of 20 Grand Slam titles.
Auger-Aliassime wanted someone with the experience to provide a different voice, a different perspective to complement Fontang.
“I think he's helped me improve maybe the consistency of my game, the quality of my movement, my focus,” Auger-Aliassime said earlier in the week. “Mainly, I think the big thing overall is the belief and the confidence that he brings to myself and everybody involved in my team.”
Auger-Aliassime practised at the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca Spain for the first time in December 2020 before going again during clay season last spring. This is where the Canadian got an education on what is required to take the next step in his game. Auger-Aliassime even had a chance to hit with Rafa in December.
“Toni brings a lot of instant feedback, always pushing to do things a little bit better, but also telling me when things are good when they're in the right direction,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I think it's paying off well.”
The year did not come without its share of disappointments in tournaments. One match that stands out came earlier in the season at the 2021 Australian Open. Auger-Aliassime made the second week in Melbourne, taking on qualifier Aslan Karatsev in the Round of 16. The Canadian was the favourite going into the match and had a two-set-to-none lead. However, Karatsev battled back, winning in five sets 3-6, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
Felix Auger-Aliassime prepares to serve. (Elise Amendola/AP)
Though a crushing defeat, Auger-Aliassime didn’t let the result define him. His abundance of self-belief allowed him to go back to training, feeling motivated to get stronger for future opportunities.
“There is the confidence that you get with the wins, and then there is the belief, and the self-belief, specifically,” Auger-Aliassime said.
“I think that shouldn't change too much with the wins and the losses. I feel like you have to go back to training, you have to keep pushing and always keep that self-belief because once it's gone, nobody is going to believe for you. You really need to be deeply confident in yourself that you can do great things, and especially in my case in this sport.”
Auger-Aliassime had his chance at Wimbledon in the fourth round against World No. 4 Alexander Zverev. The Canadian took a two-set-to-none lead, winning the first two sets 6-4, 7-6 (6). Then, Zverev roared back, taking the next two sets 6-3, 6-3.
An inexperienced player would’ve folded under the pressure of potentially blowing a two-set lead. Not Auger-Aliassime. He learned from the mistakes he made in Australia, taking the fifth set 6-4 to advance to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Despite losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to eventual finalist Matteo Berrettini, Auger-Aliassime vowed to get better. His work with Toni Nadal and head coach Fontang paid off during the U.S. Open, where his previous best was a Round-of-16 appearance.
Against the No. 10 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, Auger-Aliassime once again won in five sets (6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3) after taking the first two. In the fourth round against Frances Tiafoe, with the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd supporting the American, Auger-Aliassime stayed composed. He never flinched when he committed errors and served one of his best matches in the tournament, converting 83 per cent of his first serve points.
Auger-Aliassime’s four-set victory over Tiafoe 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-4 caught the attention of the young American.
“Felix served insane tonight,” Tiafoe said after his match with the Canadian. “Every time he needed it he came up with an ace or unreturnable, which made it very tough.”
A surprise walkover against 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz advanced Auger-Aliassime to his first career Grand Slam semifinal. Unfortunately, Medvedev stood in the way of the Canadian — a player flirting with his first Grand Slam title. Like his National Bank Open victory in Toronto and semifinal appearance in Cincinnati this summer, Medvedev is a human backboard, constantly making his opponents hit an extra shot while delivering superb power from the baseline.
Auger-Aliassime will learn from this. Like the previous losses and disappointments, the 21-year-old embraced the lessons and improved. Auger-Aliassime will rise to 11th in the ATP rankings on Monday and has a busy fall season ahead, which includes representing Team World at the Laver Cup in Boston.
In an era where Canadian tennis is making history, with Bianca Andreescu winning the 2019 US Open and now Leylah Fernandez making the final this year, Auger-Aliassime is confident his turn will come.
“I feel like I deserve to be in that position. I work for that. Now I need to keep pushing in the right direction so I go even a little bit higher.”
His work with Uncle Toni and the lessons learned at the 2021 U.S. Open will all help him get there.