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Opinion: Though he’s just 21, Felix Auger-Aliassime’s trip to U.S. Open semifinals has been a long time coming

  • September 08, 2021

NEW YORK — In a sport where the margins between good and great are absurdly small, there is never a guarantee that a tennis player’s trajectory is going to continue in one direction. 

For all the predictions of greatness that have followed Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime since early in his teenage years, his professional body of work has been like an opera with a series of acts and arias that sound perfectly formed on their own but don’t quite fit together in a cohesive story. 

There has indeed been some hand-wringing across the tennis world about why Auger-Aliassime, who turned 21 last month, wasn’t progressing more quickly. Why he was regularly reaching finals but failing to win tournaments on the ATP Tour. Why he wasn’t making an impact in the Grand Slams. 

after 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz retired with a thigh-area injury in the second set of their quarterfinal, an anticlimactic end to a match that Auger-Aliassime had controlled to that point with a 6-3, 3-1 lead. 

“I feel for him,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I was expecting a tough battle, and I didn’t see it coming. It’s unfortunate to finish like this. But I’m happy to be through to the semifinals to give myself a shot to play for a Grand Slam final.”

This was always the path Auger-Aliassime was supposed to be on. When he burst onto the scene of the ATP Tour, he seemed to have everything you need to be elite in today’s game: Loads of power to play first strike tennis, explosive athleticism and a 6-foot-4 frame that gave him huge range to cover the court. 

In the spring of 2019, he started to cash in on that promise when he traveled to South America for the clay court swing, making the finals of Rio de Janeiro and the quarterfinals in Sao Paulo. He followed that up by winning seven straight matches to go from qualifying to the semifinals of the Miami Open. Then he made two more finals, cutting his ranking from outside the top-100 to 19th in the span of six months. 

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“I’ve gotten impatient sometimes,” Auger-Aliassime said. “This year and last year, I had losses that I was disappointed with either in the Grand Slams or Masters, and I think I just learned to accept them to keep my self-belief high to keep working well and that things would come. You never know exactly when, but at some point things would click and I’d get a great result.”

One of the major issues that held Auger-Aliassime’s progress back was his serve. In 2019, he won just 49% of his second serve points and double-faulted an average of 3.7 times a match. In 2020, that stat went up to 4.2 per match, and there seemed to be a bit of a confidence issue at key moments as well as some technical problems with his ball toss. 

Auger-Aliassime has clearly put in significant work on that serve, as he’s had 85 aces through five matches and has won 81% of the points when he gets the first serve in.

“I feel like I’m on the right rhythm,” he said. “You look at the numbers I don’t have maybe the most powerful serve but I’ve been hitting my spots well, mixing the zones and feel confident behind my serve so it’s a great weapon that I’m developing lately and I have to keep going in that direction right now.”

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