PARIS – Felix Auger-Aliassime has played in just one grand slam main draw match and yet he's already made a big impression on the tennis world.
"He's become a very strong player," Roger Federer told TSN before the French Open started. "In the last six months it’s been amazing to see him grow. I’m not surprised, because he came to Dubai to train with me a bit over a year ago and I was highly impressed with his work ethic and already his mental strength ... for a young guy he's got a big tennis IQ and he's probably never really satisfied, he always wants to learn more."
Heading into the season's second major it's easy to understand why there was so much interest in how the 18-year-old would fare in his Roland Garros main draw debut. The Montreal native has rocketed to No. 22 in the rankings after starting the year outside the top 100. And Auger-Aliassime seemed to be peaking at the right time.
He made the championship match in Lyon last week, his second final this season, although it came at a cost. Auger-Aliassime injured his groin during a semifinal win over top seed Nikoloz Basilashvili on Friday. Auger-Aliassime tried to play through the injury, but was clearly compromised against Benoit Paire losing in straight sets. After undergoing a MRI on Sunday in Paris, the decision was made to withdraw from the French Open.
"A little tear, a Grade 1 tear, which is not something really bad, but I have to be careful with it," Auger-Aliassime revealed. "And we thought with how I dealt with the pain (in the Lyon final), I wasn't competitive enough to play here, to even try and start the tournament ... today is a tough day, but you have to face reality."
Auger-Aliassime would have been a big favourite in his first round match against No. 69 Jordan Thompson and the stage seemed to be set for a good run with a potential third round showdown against Juan Martin del Potro.
"Disappointing, because I've been playing well and I thought I might have a chance to do something good here, but I have to be realistic and adjust and think that there's going to be many more times to come here," he said.
Auger-Aliassime showed grace and poise in addressing the situation in the main news conference room at Roland Garros. He was asked if this was the most painful moment in his young career.
"Yeah, one of the top things," he said. "Obviously in the US Open not being able to finish the match was probably the toughest thing, because it happened very suddenly."
Last year, Auger-Aliassime was forced to retire from his first ever grand slam main draw match in New York due to heart palpitations. He had been tied at a set a piece against his good friend Denis Shapovalov.
"This one, I didn't expect it, as well. I was feeling great," he said of the sudden turn of events in Lyon. "And then during my semi-finals I started feeling pain in my groin, so, yeah, I didn't expect it. But at the same time, you know, we had time to think about it, do the exams, and it was a very thoughtful decision. I think I'm at peace just knowing ... it's going to heal pretty fast."
Auger-Aliassime is hoping to play at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, which starts June 10. So, fans will now wait and hope that Wimbledon will be the scene of the Canadian's first long grand slam run.
"There's so much optimism around him," Tennis Channel analyst Jon Wertheim said before the injury news broke, "and some of it is obviously the tennis, it's the versatility, it's the talent, the athleticism, but I think some of it also just the professional approach and players pay attention to this. They know how other players practice. They see a kid who is 18-years-old, but will go all over the world to play on clay, because he needs to get better. They see the way he carries his business."
Last year, Auger-Aliassime skipped the grass-court season to play smaller Challenger events on clay, because his team determined that was the best way for him to develop his game. The hard work has paid off this season with several strong results, including a semifinal run at the 1,000-level Masters event in Miami.
"He’s got a great character," said Federer, "super nice guy and I hope he’s going to be very successful for the rest of his career and he will be. I’m sure about it. Don’t want to put too much pressure on him and tell everybody what I think he will achieve in his career, but it will be great things."
Novak Djokovic has been impressed with Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov, who's just 20-years-old and already cracked the top 20 this season.
"Both of them, they’re rising stars," the World No. 1 told TSN before the French Open. "They're extremely talented players, but what I like most about them is their dedication, their commitment to the game. They've already matured a lot for their age. They have a great team of people around them, which certainly helps. It seems like they are very motivated to reach the greatest heights of tennis. They’re still very young, but already they’ve boosted their rankings quite high and I wish them all the best. I’ve played Denis a couple times and I haven’t played an official match versus Felix, but trained with him quite often, and all I can say is they left a very positive impression on me as guys, young people, but also as tennis players."
With so much positivity surrounding his rise, Auger-Aliassime was able to remain upbeat amid Sunday's developments.
"I can't complain," he said. "It's been an unbelievable season so far just what I've done results-wise and how I've handled myself. All these situations, my life changing, but staying the same and doing the good work has been the key to my success. There's a lot of positives even though today was a tough day to take."