September 19, 2019, 8:59

Félix Auger-Aliassime Is Trying to Stay Calm

Félix Auger-Aliassime Is Trying to Stay Calm

Félix Auger-Aliassime at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, in Washington, D.C.

Some tennis players leave an afterimage in the mind. Roger Federer flying into a forehand, his gaze lasered on the point of contact. Serena Williams with a flexed arm and clenched fist after serving an ace, roaring, “Come on!” Novak Djokovic sliding into a shot, his core balanced and legs akimbo. Rafael Nadal twirling his racquet over his head, his mouth a glorious snarl.

When I think of Félix Auger-Aliassime, I think of his split step. It’s not a flashy movement, not something that you’d put on a poster. It’s an automatic motion, drilled into players from a young age as the best way to balance the body and prepare the feet to move quickly in any direction. But, when Auger-Aliassime split-steps, my eyes are drawn to him. There is something regal about it, a suggestion of potential power.

Auger-Aliassime is tall—six feet four, with a high fade that lends him a couple more inches. He has broad shoulders, a tapered waist, and, like many tennis players, surprisingly slender arms. But his legs are tree trunks. When he hops into that slight squat, preparing to step toward the ball, his back, straight, forms a slight angle with his hips; his head is high and still, parallel to the racquet in his hands. Then comes the burst of speed. What’s striking is the solidity of his legs and the lightness of his feet beneath them: he seems at once grounded and practically floating.

He has the glory shots—a leaping scissor-kick backhand, a running forehand whip, jaw-dropping drop volleys—but they flow from that ready position. Take a typical highlight from his win over his fellow-Canadian Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the Rogers Cup, earlier this month. In the second game of the match, Auger-Aliassime sent down a middling serve right into the strike zone of Pospisil’s backhand; the toss and follow-through of his service motion carried him far into the court. Pospisil leaped on the ball and sent back a deep return. Auger-Aliassime was caught in no man’s land, between the baseline and the service line, but he remained calm: in a fluid sequence, he split-stepped, took a stride back and to his left, and caught the ball with his backhand. Pospisil was closing on the net, assuming that Auger-Aliassime’s reply, if he managed one, would be a weak floater that he could knock away. Instead, it was a perfectly placed passing shot. There was a lot to marvel at in the exchange—the softness of Auger-Aliassime’s hands as he half-volleyed a ball that was almost past him, the strength to control its trajectory from an awkward position, the imagination to try the shot at all—but none of that was as impressive to me as the way he recovered from being out of position. He didn’t scramble. He was ready.

Auger-Aliassime turned nineteen on August 8th—the same day, as it happens, that Roger Federer turned thirty-eight, exactly twice the younger man’s age. Auger-Aliassime is not the only rising star in men’s tennis who is expected to win grand slams someday, but he is the youngest, and is already talked about in the same breath as Top Ten players. Two years ago, after his seventeenth birthday, he became the youngest man to break into the Top Two Hundred since Rafael Nadal did it, in 2002. In May, he became the youngest man to enter the Top Twenty-five since Lleyton Hewitt did it, in 1999. (He’s now at No. 19.) “He’s probably the one that I like the most from the young generation, as a tennis player and as a person, I think,” Djokovic said when asked about him, in July. In late 2017, Federer invited Auger-Aliassime to train with him in Dubai for a couple of weeks, offering not much in the way of advice but something potentially more valuable: a close view of his own example. “I was mainly surprised by how hard he works,” Auger-Aliassime said, adding, “If he does that at thirty-seven, well, I had better start working, too.”

The larger public got its first real look at Auger-Aliassime last year, at the U.S. Open, when he faced his friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov, in the first round. For two sets, on a hot day, the players—at once intimate and contrasting—thrilled the crowd with a tight match. But then Auger-Aliassime brought on the trainer, who pulled out a stethoscope to listen to his heart rate; in the third set, Auger-Aliassime visibly began to fade. Down 4–1, his heart racing too fast, he retired from the match. The two friends embraced at the net, and Auger-Aliassime broke down, sobbing into Shapovalov’s shoulder.

He moved on quickly, in the way the young can do. His condition was benign, the match withdrawal necessary but not alarming. That night, he hung out with Shapovalov in Shapovalov’s hotel room and just “chilled,” Shapovalov told me. By breakfast, Auger-Aliassime was smiling. At the start of the year, he had broken into the Top Hundred. This year, he has made three finals and two semifinals. He twice beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is only two years older than Auger-Aliassime but is already ranked fifth in the world. After the second time, Tsitsipas called him “the most difficult opponent I’ve ever faced.” He added, “I’m sure if he ever gets the difficult chance to play Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer, he’s going to beat them, for sure.” Auger-Aliassime lost to Nadal a few weeks later.

When Wimbledon rolled around, the oddsmakers pegged Auger-Aliassime as the sixth-favorite to win it, behind only Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and the three men who have dominated the game for the past fifteen years—Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic. Tsitsipas and Zverev promptly lost in the first round, leaving only the big three as better bets to win. “I thought it was crazy,” Auger-Aliassime told me a month later, on a hot evening in Washington, D.C. He laughed. “I was telling my coaches, ‘People need to relax.’ ” Prior to Wimbledon, Auger-Aliassime had never won a grand-slam match.

In truth, any bet against Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal winning Wimbledon was probably a bad one—and Auger-Aliassime knew it. He defeated Pospisil in the first round, and the young French player Corentin Moutet in the second, before being upset by another young Frenchman, Ugo Humbert, in the third. Humbert subsequently lost to Djokovic, who won it all.

When I talked with Auger-Aliassime about the hype surrounding him at Wimbledon, he told me, “I think people also maybe wanted a story.” For a long time, there has only been one story in men’s tennis: the three best players in the history of the sport challenging one another year after year after year. It’s a fantastic story, an epic—long and twisting, full of tension and surprise, with well-developed characters and distinct rivalries. But, to many in tennis, the lack of legitimate challengers—and the fact that the gap between the top players and the field only seems to be growing—has become disconcerting. Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have won the last eleven straight slams. Except for a ten-month stretch, when Andy Murray was ranked No. 1, the world’s top spot has been held by Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal since February, 2004. (Auger-Aliassime was three years old then.) No player currently under the age of thirty has ever won a major title. Dominic Thiem is the only player born after 1990 even to make a grand-slam final or semifinal.

Auger-Aliassime was born in 2000, in Montreal. His mother, Marie Auger, is a French-Canadian schoolteacher; his father, Sam Aliassime, is a tennis instructor from Togo. Along with Pospisil, Shapovalov, Bianca Andreescu, and Milos Raonic, he is part of a cohort of rising Canadian tennis stars who are the children of immigrants or who are immigrants themselves. “We all arrived in Canada at a young age or, like myself, were born there,” he said. “We all consider ourselves a hundred per cent Canadian. But different routes, different backgrounds—I think that gives us an opening on the world.” Auger-Aliassime credits the immigrant mentality of his father with inspiring his own work ethic. “I know for my part it helped, seeing what my dad had to sacrifice to come to Canada, leaving all his family behind,” he said. “I think he really gave us the tools and the education that you have to work, you have to earn your place in this world.”

Auger-Aliassime’s family moved to Quebec City when he was still a child. He grew up watching tennis in person, at the academy where his father worked, and on television—he would watch Wimbledon finals and then run around the house, telling his father that he was training to be in one. He played in his first tournament when he was six, and reached the final. He has a vivid memory of the 2008 Wimbledon final, between Federer and Nadal, often called the greatest match ever played. He recorded it on a VHS tape and watched it over and over on a small television in his room.

It was his dream to become a great player—and it was his father’s dream, too. His mother was more wary. When Auger-Aliassime started to travel to tournaments at a young age, his mother, Marie, worried about him missing school, and missing out on childhood. She emphasized schoolwork and encouraged him to take piano lessons. (This spring, wearing a bow tie and jacket, he performed at the Monte-Carlo Masters players’ party.) When Auger-Aliassime and his father came home from the courts at the end of the day, they were not allowed to talk about tennis. His mother, he said, wanted him to be “a normal person.”

But Auger-Aliassime is not normal—not as a tennis player, anyway. “He is different,” the young American prospect Reilly Opelka said, after playing him in Washington. “That’s one thing you will find in common with all the great players,” he added. “They are different.” That much was clear even when Auger-Aliassime was barely more than a boy. At fourteen, he began working on his game at Canada’s National Training Centre, in Montreal, and, a few months later, became the youngest player ever to win a main-draw match on the Challenger circuit, the level just below the men’s tour. He made deep runs in the major junior tournaments, reaching the finals of the 2016 junior French Open and winning the junior U.S. Open later that year. He won three Challenger titles before he turned seventeen. He played his first tour-level match in February, 2018. In it, he hit forty-nine winners, saved three match points, and eventually lost, to the world No. 38, Filip Krajinovic.

When Auger-Aliassime was still playing juniors, agents filled the stands at his matches. Commentators told one another to head to the outer courts to catch a few of his games. There have been tennis prodigies before, of course, including some younger ones; a handful of men won their first major when they were seventeen. But careers were built differently then: there was less money, less science, less of a premium placed on experience. No one dreamed of players sustaining their peaks into—let alone throughout—their thirties.

What made Auger-Aliassime different, from the beginning, was that he doesn’t play like a phenom. He is neither a counterpuncher who finds ways to win nor a kid who gets hot and hits the court’s white lines. He plays in the modern baseliner style: big serve, decent return, strong on both the backhand and forehand wings. But his game is eerily efficient. He is always balanced—there’s that split step—which helps his quickness. However hard he hits the ball, his power seems harnessed. He has a short backswing, fantastic racquet-head speed, and clean technique, which allows the ball to pop off the strings. His movements are precise and consistent, even on the run or under pressure. He’s not afraid to go for winners, but he knows when to hold back and how to calibrate his shots—showing a kind of restraint that few players, let alone teen-agers, master. He understands, too, how much of that self-control comes from training the mind, not just the body. He began visualization exercises when he was seven or eight, and he rarely seems flustered. Paul Annacone, who has coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, told me that this quality of Auger-Aliassime’s reminds him of those players. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t panic. More than one person mentioned to me that he asks for a towel after making an error, as if to wipe it from his mind. He moves on.

Usually. Auger-Aliassime is excellent when the stakes are highest; the stats bear that out. The A.T.P.’s “under pressure rating,” a metric that combines break-point results with deciding sets and tiebreaks, has him as the sixth best on tour, just behind Nadal. But he is hardly immune to tension—especially on his second serve, the most psychologically taxing of shots. Miss it, and the returner has a free point. Make it weakly, and the returner can seize the better court position. Hit it well, and the advantage stays with you. Double faults happen, of course—and there are instances where it makes sense to risk one—but among the better players they are rare. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic average about two a game. Auger-Aliassime? Nearly five.

They have come, on occasion, at bad moments, or in bunches. In March, during his semifinal match against John Isner at the Miami Open, one of the biggest tournaments of the year, he was serving for the first set, at 5–3, when he had a double fault, and then another. On Isner’s break point, Auger-Aliassime took his time, his stance wide. He lowered his racquet into his windup and tossed up the ball, sliding his feet together and rising to strike his serve. But it was a stiff and hurried motion, and the ball clipped the top of the net and fell—his third double fault of the game. Serving for the second set, again at 5–3, he tightened up once more. Isner won both sets in tiebreaks, and so the match. “It’s like I caught a virus or something,” Auger-Aliassime said afterward.

It wasn’t an isolated occasion. At the Citi Open, in Washington, D.C., on August 1st, Auger-Aliassime played Marin Cilic, who was hitting particularly aggressive returns. Auger-Aliassime responded with eleven double faults. Soon after, at the Canadian Open, playing in front of a fervid home-town crowd, he lost to the eighth-ranked Karen Khachanov, 6–7(7), 7–5, 6–3. He had twelve double faults in the match. At the Western & Southern Open, in Cincinnati, his final tournament before the U.S. Open, in a match against the qualifier Miomir Kecmanovic, he hit three double faults on his first five second-serve points. He finished the match with ten—and an astonishing double-fault rate of more than twenty per cent.

This is partly the result of a tactical decision: Auger-Aliassime, like a number of the top young players, goes for more on his second serve than most. But there are also mechanical issues at play, clearly. You can see how his slow preparation could develop kinks; his racquet can decelerate as he whips it around. His ball toss wanders, sometimes by as much as a foot. But technical issues are, by his own admission, related to psychological ones. Pressure causes physiological changes. “You get physically tight,” he told me this summer. “That’s chemical. Your brain just sends signals. Your arm gets heavy. You can’t go against it. It just comes.” It came at Wimbledon, when he lost to Humbert, a young and lower-ranked player. “It got to a point where it was a bit embarrassing,” he said afterward. The pressure “is not easy to deal with at my age,” he said in Washington, adding, “It’s all pretty and nice on TV. But, in my head, sometimes it’s not all pretty.”

The more he succeeds, the more he puts himself in these situations, getting deeper into matches and tournaments. Then, sometimes, he succumbs. This is how it works, of course: athletes build resilience through experience, or they break down. Federer was famously hotheaded when he was Auger-Aliassime’s age. For years, Djokovic was known for being a little bit frail mentally. Auger-Aliassime wants to follow their trajectories toward inner toughness. His goal at the start of the year was to break into the Top Fifty; now, he is on the cusp of the Top Twenty. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic were “like gods, or almost gods” to him once, when he was a child. These days, he’s looking to beat them, and he believes that he can. But he knows that they are still better than he is; he continues to study their tactics in big moments, to learn what they do differently from him.

And what is that? “If I knew it, I would probably do it!” he told me. He added, “They know how to play in big moments. They know how to handle themselves. I think that’s something that you can’t learn that fast. You need some time. You need some years inside of you. I don’t want to rush it.”

In the meantime, he will face Shapovalov again, on Monday, in the first round of the U.S. Open. This time, he is the favorite, the seeded player, and is under the greater pressure. It isn’t easy to play good friends, Auger-Aliassime acknowledged when we spoke. “You don’t have the same desire to beat them,” he said. They know each other so well. But no matter the opponent, he says, he wants to be motivated more by respect than by revenge. “Every loss—that player showed me what I need to improve.” It doesn’t sound like a cliché when he says it. This is simply where he is now, readying himself for what comes.

Source: newyorker.com

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