Those who know Félix Auger-Aliassime weren't surprised to see him win the Junior U.S. Open. The Montreal teen has been grabbing tennis fans' attention for years already.
The 16-year-old became just the fourth Canadian ever, and the youngest, to win a junior Grand Slam singles title when he was crowned the boys champion on Sunday in New York, beating Serbian 17-year-old Miomir Kecmanovic in the final 6-3, 6-0.
The speedy, athletic, hard-hitting youngster has been knocking on the door of a Junior Slam title for a while, but he needed to let go of what happened a few months ago in Paris.
Auger-Aliassime made the final of the Junior French Open in June. He sat on match-point three times that day before letting the third-set tiebreaker slip away. He finished runner-up to Geoffrey Blancaneaux of France before an exuberant Parisian crowd. The Canadian's crushing disappointment after the loss was so heart-wrenching that it compelled a special spectator to jump down and console him: Yannick Noah, the French Davis Cup captain, former top-10 player and winner of the 1983 French Open.
"It was obviously really heartbreaking and I had nightmares about [the loss at Roland Garros], so going through here, I was really motivated," Auger-Aliassime said on a conference call from New York. "It was tough for me in the following weeks and months, that I was a point away from being a junior Grand Slam champion. I knew my level was there to win a tournament like this. Last time, it was a question of bad luck. This time, I had to keep being me, play my game aggressive. I learned not to think too much ahead. Maybe last time, when I won the first set, I thought it was done. But no, no – you have to go get every point."
Three months later, there was only jubilation from the Montrealer at the U.S. Open. This time, he was falling to the ground in celebration after finally being declared a junior Grand Slam champion. The stands were mostly quiet on this occasion, as most fans were across the grounds watching Stan Wawrinka upset Novak Djokovic in the senior men's final. But Auger-Aliassime's parents, who had driven from Quebec, were among the few there cheering.
Today, the teen is a Grade 11 student and a member of Tennis Canada's full-time national training centre in Montreal – the same program where Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard had once trained. Born in 2000 to a Quebecois mother, Marie Auger, and Togolese father, Sam Aliassime, he was introduced to the game by his dad, a tennis coach, when he was just four, alongside his older sister Malika.
Auger-Aliassime showed promise early. By age 9, Tennis Canada had him in its National Junior Training Program in Montreal – a part-time program for promising youngsters. In 2012, he won the Open Super 12 in Auray, France, an event for world-class players aged 12 and under – one where Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray also won as kids.
He's been at the full-time national training centre program at Uniprix Stadium since 2014. Alongside other talented teens, he's taken part in the daily program conceived by Louis Borfiga, vice-president of high performance athlete development at Tennis Canada, who had held a similar role in France and helped bring along French stars such as Gaël Monfils (world No. 8) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 12).
"I know Félix likes Jo and Gaël, and I see some similarities with them in his game when Felix is playing," said Borfiga. "But I think Felix at 16 is better than Jo or Gael was at that age."
Auger-Aliassime began working with Guillaume Marx, the training centre's coordinator who also helped guide Raonic during his Montreal days.
Before he turned 15, Auger-Aliassime won three matches at the Challenger Banque Nationale in Drummondville, Que., advancing through the qualifying draw and becoming the youngest player ever to win a match at the Challenger level on the ATP Tour. One of the matches was against Chris Guccione, a 29-year-old Australian – once ranked No. 67 in the world – who was veteran of nine Davis Cup ties. Guccione stood 6-foot-8 and fired massive serves at the boy, but Auger-Aliassime won 0-6, 6-3, 6-4.
In October that year, he was part of the three-man team – along with Benjamin Sigouin and Denis Shapovalov – to win Canada's first junior Davis Cup title.
But the disappointment that would come from the Junior French Open final a few months later seemed to put Auger-Aliassime off his game. He fell in the quarter-finals at Junior Wimbledon – he instead watched his close friend Shapovalov win the boys' title. He struggled to collect wins on the Challenger Tour, and couldn't make it out of qualifying at Toronto's Rogers Cup.
"You tell yourself 'it's okay,' but it's hard to forget what happened in Paris, and he had dropped his confidence and his game was struggling all summer," said Marx. "But he turned it around after playing poorly for a couple of rounds in New York. He remained really mentally strong the whole time, and it was big for him to finish like that."
The 6-foot-1, 155-pound teen is currently ranked No. 2 in the ITF Boys Rankings and No. 729 on the ATP Tour. He heads to Budapest later this month to play again for Canada's Junior Davis Cup team. He plans to play events on the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger Tours, but isn't sure if he will play any more junior competitions.
"I'll think about it with my coaches and my team," said Auger-Aliassime. "We will take our time to decide what we'll do next season."