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What we learned: Nadal 'nuggets' add to Auger-Aliassime's game

  • Alex Sharp

As a self-confessed “perfectionist on and off the court,” Felix Auger-Aliassime has to wrestle with plenty of frustration, just like a lot of his peers.

Tennis is a sport that can be won by the finest of margins and the modern game is pre-occupied by poring over stats.

Most players refer to “finding a way.” Now, to be ranked at world No.9 Auger-Aliassime has found a way to be victorious over 100 times on tour.

MORE: Men's singles results AO 2022

Since bursting onto the scene in 2019, the Canadian charge has rocketed up the rankings to become an elite Top 10 player.

He’s in incredible shape, clearly disciplined with his conditioning, and has all the tools to beat the very best. Speed, raw power, comfortable at net, cannonball serve – you name it.

However, in eight singles finals, the Canadian has left the court with the runner-up trophy. That’s prompted some to question his grit and composure on the grandest of stages.

Rewind to last February and ‘FAA’ held a two-sets lead over the surprise package Aslan Karatsev. The round four clash slipped through his fingers, losing 6-4 in the decider.

Auger-Aliassime: adding smarts to an already potent package

Seeking an extra spark, the Canadian brought Toni Nadal’s extensive experience to his team in April 2021 – uncle and former coach to Rafael Nadal. 

“Through conversations and through work on the court, I think I’ve been able to just learn and kind of take in information from Toni and process it,” stated the 21-year-old. “To see what I can improve and him being there is a huge source of motivation and more than anything it’s confidence and trust.

“He brought confidence that reaching the semifinal of the Grand Slam and challenging the best players in the world is something that is doable.”

Nadal’s nuggets of information had a near immediate impact at the top table. 

Prior to Australian Open 2022, Auger-Aliassime was two from 11 in Grand Slam matches when his opponent reached two sets.

Those two victories are from last season, including a 6-4 7-6(6) 3-6 3-6 6-4 Wimbledon last 16 epic with Alexander Zverev. Not perfect, not pretty, but FAA booked a maiden quarterfinal in south-west London.

Over to New York and Auger-Aliassime recorded his best Grand Slam result at the US Open, reaching the semifinals. His undulating third round 6-3 6-4 4-6 3-6 6-3 scoreline against Roberto Bautista Agut propelled his run towards the final four.

Grinding out these sort of matches earned ‘FAA’ a Top 10 ranking by the end of the season, managing to find a way, what some coaches would call “winning ugly.” Getting more balls back, forcing an opponent to second guess, the world No.9 is developing the know-how within the Grand Slam arena.

Over to Melbourne Park this week and FAA had his back against the wall in the first round, facing talented Finn Emil Ruusuvuori. The Canadian rallied to escape 6-4 0-6 3-6 6-3 6-4, to post his first ever career comeback from 1-2 sets down.

That’s a significant moment for the amiable Canadian, proving that he’s become battle-hardened.

He realises that the key here is not necessarily his peak level, when in control, it’s how a player reacts to adversity, a lead slipping, how well they can play when strokes aren’t working.

“It's like the majority of matches in a season in tennis, actually. Even the best of the best we've saw them play at a very high level at some points, but how many matches are actually during the year is everything going well and your way, maybe five, maybe 10 max on a great year,” stated the Canadian after his opener in Melbourne. “So the majority of matches actually just back and forth.”

“It's a battle with an opponent and you try to figure out a way to go through, for sure it's important for my confidence. It was going to happen at some point in my career, to come back from being led in a Grand Slam.”

It didn’t go the distance but Auger-Aliassime’s match IQ was then sternly tested 7-6(4), 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 7-6(4) in four hours, 19 minutes facing Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Thursday. The world No.9’s holding his nerve in four intense breakers. 

A total of 28 aces, 83 unforced errors, brilliance versus concern, but it doesn’t matter – he toughed it out.

The 21-year-old is very switched on and realises there is a lot more scrapping to do, a long road ahead to reach his ultimate goals.

How far can the 21-year-old go at AO22?

“The majority of what I've done, I can't complain. At the same time, I'm never a person to be satisfied. I always want to be better,” revealed the world No.9, taking on British 24th seed Dan Evans in the last 32.

“I think just year after year I've just become a better player, a better person also. When I say that I mean mentally on the court. I think matches, like today, two years ago, would have probably went out in three, four sets. Today I was able to win in five (versus Ruusuvouri).

“That shows my progress that I've made as a person mentally on the court. But of course, I wish I had won a lot of titles. I wish I was even higher always. But it's the reality.”

The battle for supremacy is never over, tennis is relentless and harsh. Auger-Aliassime is well up for the scrap.