PARIS — Before there was Carlos, there was Félix.
It isn’t really easy to recall now, through the haze of the pandemic and the aftershocks of Carlos Alcaraz’s meteoric impact on tennis of late. But there was a time, starting in roughly 2015, that the tennis cognoscenti raved a few young Canadian named Félix Auger-Aliassime, calling him a possible heir to Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
After a high quality begin to the 12 months but a rocky late winter and spring for Auger-Aliassime, that idea never felt farther away than during his first two sets of the French Open on Sunday. Auger-Aliassime got here out flat and wild for the primary men’s match on the primary stadium court. For 88 minutes he was lost against little-known Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru, 25, who’s ranked 122nd and had his opponent complaining to himself and anyone else who would listen.
Then, with a number of flicks of his forehand, a number of blasted serves and a few deft drop shots, Auger-Aliassime was back, displaying his unique mixture of power, precision, touch and speed. He prevailed, 2-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-3, 6-3, in a 3-hour-14-minute scare that made for a really Félix-like afternoon.
Auger-Aliassime made the ultimate of the Roland Garros junior tournament in 2016, at age 15, after which won the U.S. Open boys’ title later that 12 months. He was 6 feet 2 inches (on his method to 6-4), with long arms and fast feet. He could switch directions like a large receiver. He had broad shoulders that left loads of room for his torso to fill out and add much more power.
He was also polite and courtly, approaching the sport with a humility that coaches said drove him to coach hard on daily basis. Watching him play a match in his teenage years, Gastão Elias, a longtime Portuguese pro, said Auger-Aliassime “has been an adult since he was 12.”
Auger-Aliassime may at some point fulfill all of the promise of his teenage years. He’s just 21, ranked ninth on this planet and the youngest member of the highest 10 not named Alcaraz. But when he does, the journey can have involved loads of suits and starts, including losses in his first eight finals and other moments when he seemed about to take off only to fall flat.
And now, as he strives to succeed in the extent of the Big Three — together with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and so many others — there may be Alcaraz to contend with, a 19-year-old charging from the rear, piling up trophies and wins against the sport’s greats and making that last, hardest step look easy. In mere months, Alcaraz has modified the calculus for all of the 20-somethings, though Auger-Aliassime’s greater problem of late is inconsistency, not Alcaraz.
“Before, it was just Nadal and Federer and Djokovic,” said Louis Borfiga, a longtime French tennis teacher and the architect of Canada’s modern tennis development machine. “Now there may be an incredible player coming. He has to work very hard, and he has to remain positive, to consider in himself and his game.”
Auger-Aliassime has no illusions in regards to the difficulty of the subsequent step.
“The hardest part is at all times what’s ahead of you, isn’t it?” he said one afternoon last month in Portugal, before being upset in a quarterfinal at a small tournament through which he was the highest seed. “What you haven’t done before.”
If he can take the ultimate step, Auger-Aliassime might be the game’s perfect celebrity, a multiracial star with roots on three continents. He grew up within the largely French-speaking province of Quebec, the son of an immigrant from Togo, where he donates tons of of 1000’s of dollars every year to children’s causes.
He has since moved to Monaco and spends loads of time in France and Spain, making him a recent favorite in Europe.
“Allez Félix!” the fans yelled on Sunday as he tried to return back in his match.
And the proximity of his childhood to Recent York, amongst his other attributes, has endeared him to the U.S. Open crowd, earning him an invite to last 12 months’s Met Gala, where he wore a white dinner jacket on the red carpet.
“We still have borders, but I consider myself a citizen of the world,” he said.
Auger-Aliassime was nearly as good as anyone on this planet in the primary six weeks of the 12 months, leading Canada to the championship of the ATP Cup, attending to match point against Daniil Medvedev (the eventual finalist) within the Australian Open quarters, then seemingly breaking through by winning the Rotterdam Open, his first title.
Nadal and Federer are invested in his success. Auger-Aliassime occasionally trains at Nadal’s academy in Majorca, working with Nadal’s uncle and former coach, Toni Nadal. Federer texted Auger-Aliassime in February when he finally won his first tournament. “I’m glad for you, well done,” Federer wrote.
But more downs than ups have followed, with early losses on hardcourts, that are alleged to be his best surface, after which on clay in Marrakesh, Monte Carlo and Estoril, Portugal, where he was the highest seed.
“After January, we didn’t expect the losses, but we all know consistency may be very difficult,” said Frédéric Fontang, Auger-Aliassime’s coach since 2017. “He does have a capability to soak up and continue to learn and at all times do his best, and that’s the first talent that a top player should have.”
That is the best way it has at all times been for Auger-Aliassime, ever since his father, Sam Aliassime, a tennis coach in Quebec, introduced him to the game when he was a boy. Aliassime coached his son until he was 13. Auger-Aliassime then moved to Montreal to coach with Canada’s suddenly vibrant development program.
Borfiga first saw Auger-Aliassime play as a 6-year-old, however it was 4 years later that his potential became apparent. Borfiga said he already had a “heavy ball,” a term tennis coaches and players use to explain someone whose strokes naturally produce shots that blend power and spin in a way that makes them difficult to return.
Auger-Aliassime said he began to understand how good he might at some point be when he won a global junior tournament in Auray, France, when he was 11.
“From then on, the idea was there,” he said.
His success and private appeal have attracted loads of blue-chip endorsements, including a partnership with BNP Paribas, the international bank that’s amongst the most important sponsors in tennis. For each point Auger-Aliassime wins on tour this 12 months, the bank donates $15 and Auger-Aliassime donates $5 to children’s education in Togo.
“He represents the youth,” Jean-Yves Fillion, the chief executive of BNP Paribas USA, said of Auger-Aliassime.
And yet there are those vexing defeats — coughing up a two-set result in the Russian qualifier Aslan Karatsev on the 2021 Australian Open; an early loss to Max Purcell, the A hundred and ninetieth-ranked player, on the Tokyo Olympics; and a second-round loss on the 2021 National Bank Open on home soil in Toronto to Dusan Lajovic of Serbia. After which there was Sunday’s nervy escape during his first appearance on Philippe Chatrier Court.
Auger-Aliassime’s team, led by Fontang, built his schedule in 2022 around opportunities for victories, including more smaller tournaments. If he can start winning those, then perhaps winning will grow to be a habit.
Fontang said players with an aggressive style like Auger-Aliassime’s might take longer to succeed in their full potential because they were more susceptible to mistakes, though few players are more aggressive than Alcaraz. He said Auger-Aliassime’s physical gifts made his success nearly inevitable in his mind. But Fontang wants Auger-Aliassime to be much more aggressive, to benefit from his power and size by coming to the web more and ending points, though that would hasten further inconsistency.
“In fact, the long run we cannot know, but he just can’t be static,” Fontang said. “What you see with one of the best players is that there is no such thing as a part once they are standing still.”
Auger-Aliassime has no intention of doing that, regardless that he knows the trail to the highest keeps getting narrower the upper he climbs. Tennis math, easy because it is, is exceedingly cruel. There are only 10 players in the highest 10, and just one will be No. 1.
“The elite,” he said with a shake of his head, “are only so consistent.”