Felix Auger-Aliassime focusing on clay with long-term goals in mind


Canada’s Felix Auger Aliassime. (David Vincent/AP)

After bowing out in the second round of qualifying at the French Open, Canada‘s Felix Auger-Aliassime sat down with his coaches and decided to make a short-term change with a long-term goal in mind.

The 17-year-old from Montreal opted to extend his run on clay courts and skip the grass-court season. It’s a move that appears to be paying off.

Auger-Aliassime won an ATP Challenger tournament in Lyon after his appearance at Roland Garros and reached the final a week later in Blois, France.

Rather than face a potential early qualifying exit at a grass-court event like Wimbledon, Auger-Aliassime has enjoyed some deep runs on the lower-level circuit while playing on a slower surface where rallies tend to be longer.

The goal is to maximize that court time, soak up the experience and use it as a building block for the future.

“To be humble and to play Challengers, I think it’s good for his mentality,” said Louis Borfiga, Tennis Canada’s vice-president of high performance. “He has to understand that it’s a long way to be a champion … I think it’s the right mentality for the future.”

Considered one of the best prospects in the sport, Auger-Aliassime has already risen to No. 152 in the world rankings. He has a big serve, powerful strokes from both sides and strong court coverage skills.

He looks like a veteran even though he’s a month away from his 18th birthday.

“I think I have the game to play well on every surface,” Auger-Aliassime said. “Hopefully by next year, I can play all four Slams in the same year.”

He joined elite company with his third career Challenger win. Novak Djokovic, Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin del Potro are the only other players who have won at least three titles on the circuit before turning 18.

Auger-Aliassime was hampered by a knee injury at the start of this season but has made strides since his return. He has mixed some ATP World Tour events into his calendar and made the second round at Indian Wells — beating Canadian Vasek Pospisil before falling to another compatriot in Milos Raonic.

The youngster is aiming for a top-100 ranking by the end of the season.

“I think I can be dangerous from anywhere, any position on the court,” Auger-Aliassime said from Marburg, Germany. “If I can use that energy, that power, that intensity, and be as consistent as I can and reduce the unforced errors, that’s how I can get to the level that I want at the end of the year.”

The six-foot-three 185-pounder plans to stay in Europe for a couple weeks before shifting his attention to the hardcourt season.

“We have to remember he’s a young, young kid,” Borfiga said from Montreal. “Yes he’s improving. I think he’s made a lot of progress with the technical side and also with the maturity of his game. He’s starting to have some good results.”

Auger-Aliassime won the US Open junior title in 2016, a year after winning the junior doubles title in New York with good friend Denis Shapovalov.

Shapovalov, 19, broke out as a singles star last summer and has since rocketed to No. 25 in the world rankings.

It can be tempting for Canadian tennis fans to envision a similar path for Auger-Aliassime. While he appears to have that potential, sometimes athletes take longer to blossom.

“He has to follow his way,” Borfiga said. “If his way is to be good at 20, that’s OK too.”

Like many young players, Auger-Aliassime has big goals as he looks to the future. He’s prepared to take the small steps now to try to get there.

“For me the dream has always been to win a Grand Slam and to be No. 1 in the world,” he said. “That’s the dream. Now I’m focusing myself on short-term objectives. Improving my game and just becoming a better player.”

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