For a prodigy raised in an unrelenting spotlight, the first thing you notice about Felix Auger-Aliassime is a sense of calm. He’s exceedingly polite, with a pristine white tracksuit that’s perfectly tailored to match the glint in his eye, but even that pales against the grace the Canadian wields on court. A fortnight ago, in Roger Federer’s spiritual home of Halle, Auger-Aliassime came from a set down to secure victory, his youthful power matched by artful precision. Two decades on from Federer’s seminal win against Pete Sampras, this was not quite a passing of the torch, but it is clear to see the regal qualities and affinity for the grass Auger Aliassime has inherited from his idol. “It was a special moment in the short history of my career,” he says.
Auger-Aliassime, who turns in 21 in August, may still be considered a rising star on tour, but that short history already boasts an avalanche of accolades. As a junior, he won the US Open in both singles and doubles and proved the dexterity of his technique by reaching a final on clay at the French Open, too. At just 14, he became the youngest player to win a main draw match on the ATP’s Challenger Tour and then followed it up by breaking into the top 200 just three years later – making him the youngest to do so since Rafael Nadal. To the outside world, after such extraordinary exploits, Auger-Aliassime’s status as a contender at Wimbledon this week was inevitable to the point of being preordained.
Success, though, can also disguise the burden of pressure. When making his debut as an 18-year-old here two years ago, the expectation startled Auger-Aliassime, who squandered a match point in his third-round match against Ugo Humbert and rapidly unravelled, the racquet a stranger in his hand by its end. Afterwards, he went as far as describing his performance as “pretty embarrassing”.
“The first time I was at Wimbledon, it was quite nerve wracking,” he says. “I was a bit overwhelmed with the attention and pressure put on me. I feel like now I’ve learnt how to deal with that better, the outside expectation, what people might say or what I might see in the media. I just feel like it’s a process that you learn. Two years ago, I just didn’t feel good inside of me, I felt a little bit too nervous. Now I feel more relieved and relaxed. I want to show up and handle myself and these things are clearer in my mind.”
If there can be one criticism of Auger-Aliassime, it is his record on the grander stage. He has reached eight ATP finals in his career, an astounding achievement on its own, but one unavoidably blemished by the fact that he has failed to clinch the title on each occasion. To rectify that, he has sought the help of Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and former coach, to streamline the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that comprise each match, but insists those defeats will not cloud his overall progress. Whereas it took years for Federer and Nadal to harness the fiery streaks that so often characterised their youths, Auger-Aliassime uses his maturity as a defence mechanism.
“It’s not that straightforward sometimes. There can be weeks or months where you are a little less confident and it is a very normal thing to accept that,” he says. “The road where I want to go, the road to excellence, is not a straight line, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster and there are ups and downs. We are all humans, we all have, not necessarily doubts, but times where you question ‘what did I do wrong?’ There have been great moments and some that are tough but that’s just the story with tennis. That’s kind of the story of my life: always questioning how to improve.”
Auger-Aliassime credits his work ethic and sense of perspective to his father, a tennis instructor who migrated to Canada from Togo. “He had very few opportunities and was able to do better in his life and wish for a better life for his kids,” he says. “The message for me was always to work hard and be consistent and he taught me that from really young. I will keep that with me through all my life, that’s the most important thing, and to never lose belief that you can do good things.”
His mother, a schoolteacher, made sure Auger-Aliassime was able to compartmentalise the pressures of tennis growing up so he could “appreciate the other moments”. In truth, though, the foundation of his success, long before he was heralded the face of a new generation, has been that the hard work has never felt like a sacrifice. For Auger-Aliassime, at the most basic level, tennis is a source of joy, not a profession. Still in these glittering early stages of his career, that quality alone will sustain one of the sport’s brightest talents.
“I love what I do and I am privileged to be able to play tennis this way in my life at such a young age,” he says. “It’s kind of like getting your dream job at 18. There’s nothing better.”