Stepping up to the service line, 16-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, gets his feet set. He bounces the ball off the clay surface once, twice, thrice, four times, then tosses it up and places it perfectly into the back-right corner of the service box, forcing his overwhelmed opponent, Frenchman Mathias Bourgue, into a bad position.
Two strokes later by the Canadian teenager and his hands are on his head in disbelief.
He has done it. He was won his first ATP Challenger Tour title, becoming the seventh-youngest to ever do it.
That was just June of last year in Lyon, France, and while Auger-Aliassime had already won a couple pro titles at ITF Futures events, his first Challenger Tour win represented a glimpse at a future as bright as any Canadian tennis player who’s picked up a racket.
Almost exactly one year later, the Montreal native’s career outlook became that much clearer when he became the youngest player in history to defend a Challenger Tour title, winning in Lyon again. In the process, Auger-Aliassime joined the likes of Richard Gasquet, Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic as the only players who have won at least three Challenger Tour titles by age 17.
Now he’s got his sights set on the ATP proper and will be looking to make his big splash at the Rogers Cup.
“I think it’s pretty special. As a Canadian, it’s a tournament I’ve always dreamt of playing,” said Auger-Aliassime in a phone interview. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
The tournament will still be in its opening stages when Auger-Aliassime only turns 18 on Aug. 8. Still, it feels like his Rogers Cup main draw debut has been a long time coming.
Auger-Aliassime actually made his Rogers Cup debut in Toronto two years ago, but he was relegated to the qualifiers and got knocked out in his first match against Australia’s James Duckworth. Then, in his hometown Montreal last year, he was given a wild-card entry but was forced to withdraw from the event because of a wrist injury.
Now, fully healthy and with the momentum of his Challenger Tour win in Lyon as well as a couple of round-of-16 appearances in a pair of ATP 250 events leading up to it, Auger-Aliassime will finally get a chance to play in the Masters 1000 Rogers Cup main draw.
It’s a great opportunity for Auger-Aliassime to not only play top competition on home soil, it could also be a great launching pad for his career in terms introducing himself to Canadian sports fans who may not be keeping tabs on junior tennis, similarly to the way Denis Shapovalov electrified the Montreal crowd during his semifinal run last year.
A good friend of Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime is well aware of what the 2017 Rogers Cup did for his buddy and wants to make something similar happen for himself.
“I think I’ll go out there and put what I have on the table and that’s how I approach it. I don’t really put any pressure on myself,” said Auger-Aliassime. “It’s a great opportunity to play great matches, play in front of a home crowd, play the top-level players. I think if you ask Denis at the same time last year [about] his expectations of the Rogers Cup, I don’t think he expected to reach the semis.
“He’s a competitor, as I am, and he loves to win. So I’m gonna go as deep as I can in Toronto and we’ll see what happens.”
One thing Auger-Aliassime can guarantee is that he’ll be partnering with Shapovalov in the doubles competition.
“It’s gonna be great,” Auger-Aliassime said. “This time, we’re two really different players with far more experience and [are at] a much better level, so hopefully we get to win a few matches.”
— Rogers Cup (@rogerscup) August 4, 2018
The partnership makes sense on a lot of levels as not only are they pals who have come up the junior ranks together, they also had doubles success before when they were younger. They captured 2015 U.S. Open and finished runners-up at Wimbledon 2016 in junior grand slams.
These doubles results are but a glimpse of what Auger-Aliassime has accomplished. Amassing a singles record of 79-19, the phenom became the youngest player in history to reach a Challanger Tour main draw when he was only 14, reached a French Open final in 2016 and won the U.S. Open in that same year.
Shapovalov found similar success when he was a junior, winning Wimbledon in 2016 and finishing with an 86-32 record.
That’s a lot of success for a couple of players whose combined ages don’t even add up to how old Canadian tennis legend Daniel Nestor is. While a lot of success at an early age can’t really be called a bad thing, there has been a precedent set in Canadian tennis about what can happen to rising stars when they get too close to the sun.
Sharon Fichman, who will be working as a television analyst during the Rogers Cup for Sportsnet, was one of Canadian tennis’s original bright lights. Coming up as a junior, Fichman was the No. 2-ranked under-14 player in the world when she was 13 and was celebrated as one of Canada’s best young athletes.
Eventually that pressure to perform, as well as injury problems, forced Fichman to walk away from the game when she was just 25.
It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but thankfully in Auger-Aliassime’s and Shapovalov’s case, it’s something that isn’t likely to happen because of the support group they have around them.
“What the biggest difference, I think, from my experience and with what Felix and Denis are going through is that they have a very good team and they’re surrounded by people that have been there and know the steps to get there, and I really feel that’s their biggest asset,” said Fichman in a phone interview. “They’re prepared for this, they were sort of groomed for this and they’re guided to each stage.”
That support group includes individuals from Tennis Canada, friends and, especially in Auger-Aliassime’s case, family.
First picking up the game when he was four years old, Auger-Aliassime owes much of his passion for tennis to his father.
“My dad was a tennis coach,” Auger-Aliassime said. “He was always really passionate about tennis. So it started at a young age on the tennis courts with my dad. When he was coaching, I was just watching. And then, eventually, I just told him I wanted to play, and then I started playing with my sister, who was a bit older than me. So that kind of pushed me to play, also.
“And then, as the years were passing, I was just playing more and more and I was still loving it. So that’s why I stuck with it.”
Another reason may just be because he’s really good at it, and he’ll get his chance to prove just how good he is when he faces French competitor Lucas Pouille in the first round of the Rogers Cup.
Pouille is no pushover, either, ranking as high as No. 10 in the world this year alone. But, according to Fichman, Auger-Aliassime will have one major weapon on his side.
“There’s [something] to be said about youth and that you don’t have the experience of failure very much under your belt,” Fichman said. “So when you step up in the big moment all you have is success, so there’s so much confidence. Every time you’ve been in this situation, you’ve been successful. So why now? Why would it be different?”
For Auger-Aliassime, there’s no reason for it to be any different. He’s got aspirations beyond winning one match, after all.
“I think winning my first challenger last year was a pretty big step for me. It gave me the belief that I have the level to play with the best 200 players in the world,” he said. “And then this year winning a few matches at ATP-level tournaments was a big step. I think now the next step would be to get an ATP title and crack the top 100, so that’s what I’m aiming for this year.”
A quarterfinal appearance at the Rogers Cup would accomplish one of those goals, but he could always kill two birds with one stone.
Why should it be any different?