Felix on Fire

By Giri Nathan

The golden résumé of Felix Auger-Aliassime used to have one conspicuous blotch: Coming into the 2022 season, the Canadian prodigy had lost all eight finals he’d played on tour. These eight losses range widely from “totally understandable” (Matteo Berrettini on grass) to “c’mon dude” (Benoit Paire anywhere), and half of them were to lower-ranked players. Weirder still, Auger-Aliassime hadn’t managed to win a set in any of those eight contests. It was clear that his performance in them misrepresented his tremendous underlying talent. (For one, he served fewer aces and more double faults in these finals compared with his career averages.) Felix was not alone in this plight. In ATP history, only Julian Benneteau had played as many finals without winning one; the Frenchman retired in 2018 with an 0–10 record in title fights.

But earlier this year, Auger-Aliassime fended off a Benneteau-esque fate by winning his first ATP title in Rotterdam. It was a 6–4, 6–2 victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had won their five previous matchups. “I can’t explain the weight off my shoulder right now,” Auger-Aliassime said afterward. “I got a little bit emotional with my family, you know, towards the end after the match. It’s crazy, I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about this title and why I can’t overcome this feat. I didn’t have a clear reason.” He also said that he could play “more freely” now that he’d attained that elusive hardware. 

And he did, for a moment, making another final in Marseille the very next weekend, and losing it to Andrey Rublev. From there, his season cooled down dramatically, at least by the standards of a 22-year-old loaded with expectations. Spring and summer passed by without incident; Felix won three matches in a row just once, at Roland-Garros, and was bounced from the first and second rounds of Wimbledon and the US Open, respectively. I wonder if Felix felt old for the first time in his career, or life, as he watched even younger talents like Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner flash even more raw creativity and power than he’d had at their ages.

But then he beat Alcaraz at Davis Cup, and soon after he’d beat Novak Djokovic, albeit in the virtual-reality bubble of Laver Cup. And in the last breath of a disappointing season, Auger-Aliassime apparently decided he was going to conquer his hang-ups around finals with pure exposure therapy. He made three straight finals in Florence, Antwerp, and Basel, winning all of them. In that span he beat Alcaraz again and diagnosed his own performance as “very close to perfect.” Holger Rune, the // “baby” who’s // on an impressive hot streak of his own, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final, and said it was “probably the best [serve] I’ve ever played against, close to the line, so precise, over 200 kilometers per hour.” Whatever weapons the other youngsters have in their arsenals, they do not have FAA’s serve. From his quarterfinal in Antwerp to his first match in Paris this week, his serve was not broken: 93 service holds in a row. In this span he’s produced some eye-popping stats: a match where 29 percent of his serves were aces (Richard Gasquet in Antwerp); a match where he got 78 percent of first serves into play and sacrificed nothing in pace (Sebastian Korda in Basel); a match where he won 92 percent of first-serve points (Miomir Kecmanovic in Basel).

A win in Paris on Thursday sent the hyper-consistent Gilles Simon into retirement and extended Auger-Aliassime’s win streak to 15. On Friday, he dropped only 12 points on serve in a straight-set win over Frances Tiafoe, extending that streak to 16.  Time for a necessary caveat: The indoor season is a wonky part of the calendar. Players are tired and making all kinds of triage decisions about their ranking points and bodies, and we regularly see vibrant breakouts that are never consolidated the following season. We’ll get a bit more clarity next week, since this late harvest of points secured Felix a place in his first-ever ATP Finals, where he’ll test his level against the best. If he keeps serving meteors and backing them up with that forehand—if he really can make a case for the best serve-plus-one repertoire on tour—then this kid has perhaps dozens of finals still to come, and 0–8 becomes just a foggy, silly memory.

Above: Felix after manhandling Frances Tiafoe in Paris this morning. (Getty)


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