By CATHAL KELLY
Saturday, August 3, 2019
TORONTO -- The practice courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club let in all sorts during Wimbledon. Most spectators come armed with the requisite awe. A few have spent too much time filling up at the Champagne stations.
On this unremarkable afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Félix Auger-Aliassime is working on his serve. Four upper-class yobs are sitting directly behind the fence Auger-Aliassime is aiming at.
"Auger-Aliassime," one announces to a question that was not asked, whilst staring at his phone.
"Who?" says another.
"He's 6 foot 4."
"He doesn't look it."
"They will fool you."
Auger-Aliassime can clearly hear this bonehead appraisal going on, since there is no one else about and it is being delivered at something just south of a shout.
This is what happens in London when you aren't Roger Federer.
People think it's okay to banter through your backswing.
Nevertheless, these four dummies aside, Auger-Aliassime, 18, is having a moment. Ahead of the tournament, the British broadsheets are full of stories about him. He is everyone's hot pick to break through, which is more a curse than a favour.
For the past decade, the overarching narrative of men's tennis has been "Who will kill the kings?" Several generations have failed miserably in this pursuit.
Even the newest one is beginning to look shot through with pretenders.
After losing his first-round match at Wimbledon, Stefanos Tsitsipas nearly weeps in a news conference and then locks himself in a room for several days.
Canada's most recent great hope, Denis Shapovalov, exits early and says he is thinking about seeing a therapist.
This king-killing business is hard on the nerves.
As a result, the shelf life of a "next big thing" has shrunk from years to a few months. People lose faith that quickly. In July, just as his career was getting going, Auger-Aliassime was put on the clock. He's the next big thing now, perhaps the biggest this country has ever produced.
I'm sitting with Auger-Aliassime's agent, Bernard Duchesneau, watching him practise. Duchesneau, a trim, dapper man, has the look of a former pro. I ask him if he plays.
"Yes, sure," Duchesneau says, and points at his client. "But around this guy you do not say you 'play tennis.' You say you own a racquet. I am a racquet owner."
A good line is made even better by a shrug and a very French moue.
"You will be quick, yes?" Duchesneau says as Auger-Aliassime exits his court and begins running a selfie gauntlet through a small crowd toward us. "This is a lot for him."
If the worry is that AugerAliassime will have his head turned by sudden attention, that seems the least of his problems.
I don't think I've ever met a more self-possessed teenager, in any walk of life. Two minutes in, it feels as though Auger-Aliassime is interviewing you, rather than the other way round. How are you doing? What have you seen?
Didn't we meet before?
This past week, another young hopeful, Frances Tiafoe said of Auger-Aliassime, "He's 18, but he acts like he's 35."
I'd give him a couple of decades more. Auger-Aliassime is a bit like the boss everyone wishes they had. Paternal and reassuring.
This time last year, AugerAliassime's English was ragged.
Now it is nearly perfect, down to the idioms. He does the conversational back and forth with actual pleasure, and doesn't squirm quite so much when subjected to compliments. If you say something nice to him, he will make sure you know he's heard it. Stopping to thank people is a big part of his repertoire.
You don't just see Auger-Aliassime, the tennis player, improving. You also see Auger-Aliassime, the brand, coming into focus. From this point on, these two distinct building projects must go on simultaneously.
Auger-Aliassime says two moments this year alerted him to a tectonic shift in his circumstances. Neither happened on a tennis court.
The first was being introduced at a hockey game at Bell Centre.
This was just after his breakout moment at the Miami Open, where he went from fringe qualifier to semi-finalist.
"I got up and I got a full standing ovation," Auger-Aliassime says. "I thought people were just going to clap casually, but every single one in the stadium got up."
Auger-Aliassime raises up his arms, O's his mouth in wonder and holds that pose for a couple of beats.
"Okay, for a kid from Montreal to get a standing ovation at a Canadiens game? That's special."
The second was during the French Open. Auger-Aliassime was strolling down the ChampsÉlysées and was stopped for photos.
"That was like, 'Okay, damn, I'm walking down the biggest avenue of Paris and I'm getting recognized,' " he says. "That was weird, too."
Weird is a word Auger-Aliassime uses a lot to describe his life.
Auger-Aliassime is unusually aware of being an object of fascination. Neither too enamoured of the idea nor turned off by it. He talks about this process with detachment, as if he, too, were considering this person called Félix Auger-Aliassime.
"Being watched is disturbing the first time you play on big stages. It felt like people are, I don't know, dominating you. You also feel like every time you do a mistake, it's almost like they are judging you," Auger-Aliassime says. "I don't think anyone can get prepared for that. You're going to be scared the first time."
He doesn't seem scared at Wimbledon, his first major. He seems to be enjoying himself immensely. Even the postmatch back and forth with the media is breezy and chatty. Even after he's lost in the third round.
After one of those exchanges, as Auger-Aliassime is leaving the room, an American tennis writer turns to the assembled Canadian journos and says, "That kid is incredible." He's not talking about his forehand.
In any sport, we'd now be speaking about Auger-Aliassime's next steps. Go deep in a major. Win a smaller tournament. Take a match from the Big Three when they aren't quite as locked in.
But in tennis, the next step is getting to the top. Viewers have been conditioned to expect that giant leap as a prerequisite to respect.
When I put it to Duchesneau that things will change again "if" Auger-Aliassime wins a Grand Slam, he corrects me: "When he wins a Grand Slam ..." He'll get his second big Montreal coming out this week at the Rogers Cup. He's already as big as any Canadien. If he wins, he'll be bigger. If he wins a Slam, he'll be Sidney Crosby big.
The thing you're wondering is how does this all feel? What is it like to at one moment be a middle-class kid getting up early to hit balls by yourself and in the next be someone a crowd turns to stare at as you walk to work?
Auger-Alissiame gets a faraway look and sighs amusedly.
"It is quite challenging, to be honest. I don't think it comes naturally to anybody because it's so unusual," he says. "Unless you're the kid of a superstar or some royalty, every player I see on Tour starts as a normal person. Then you get to the point where people start to recognize you. Your life changes little by little."
"You have to be more careful. I even talked to my Dad about it.
..." He searches around for an absurd example.
"... You know, you call the credit-card company and, I don't know, just start screaming at the guy because he'll be like, 'Oh, you're the father of the tennis player.' He has to be careful. So it doesn't just change the life of me, but also of the whole family."
That's probably Auger-Aliassime in a nutshell. When asked how fame is affecting him, he talks about how it is affecting everyone around him. From his poise to his unaffected charm, Auger-Aliassime seems more similar to Roger Federer than any other player of recent years.
A lot of players have had the game. None have had the charisma. You can't say exactly how you know this, but after a few minutes in his presence, you know Auger-Aliassime has it. He was born to the stage.
There are holes in his game - a tendency toward slow starts, a serve that does not rank with the best. But you figure that experience and a little more weight on his lanky frame will take care of that.
The most difficult step is the one through expectation. Take a look at a Tsitsipas or an Alex Zverev. Still the age of university students, they already seem crushed by the burden. It takes something more than talent.
Before facing Auger-Aliassime in Washington this week, American Reilly Opelka called him "abnormal."
"That's one thing you will find in common with all the great players," Opelka said. "They are different."
Without summoning tennis's holy trinity by name, Opelka put the Canadian in the same bracket as the Nadals and Federers.
Someone who has the feel of a champion, even when they are losing.
Auger-Aliassime won that match. He lost in the round of 16 to former U.S. Open winner Marin Cilic.
As the plaudits from colleagues pile up, Auger-Aliassime has gone past false modesty. He started the year ranked 108th in the world. He has yet to win any ATP tournament. But the finish line is already further than that.
What do you think is next for you?
"I don't know."
Win a Grand Slam?
Auger-Aliassime does another one of his pauses and looks at you for a bit, as though deciding whether to let you in on a secret.
"Yeah. I think so. There's no point for me to rush or take things earlier. They're coming. I take things as they come."
Despite only recently entering the ATP top 100, Félix Auger-Aliassime has shown a deep understanding of the dangers of fame and expectations.
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