Opinion: Though he’s just 21, Felix Auger-Aliassime’s trip to U.S. Open semifinals has been a long time coming

NEW YORK — In a sport where the margins between good and great are absurdly small, there is never a guarantee that a tennis player’s trajectory is going to continue in one direction.

For all the predictions of greatness that have followed Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime since early in his teenage years, his professional body of work has been like an opera with a series of acts and arias that sound perfectly formed on their own but don’t quite fit together in a cohesive story.

There has indeed been some hand-wringing across the tennis world about why Auger-Aliassime, who turned 21 last month, wasn’t progressing more quickly. Why he was regularly reaching finals but failing to win tournaments on the ATP Tour. Why he wasn’t making an impact in the Grand Slams.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time for those questions to go away. And perhaps that time is now.

Showing an improved serve, a steadier approach off the ground and even a bit of emotion on the court at this U.S. Open, Auger-Aliassime is into the first of what will likely be many Grand Slam semifinals. He got there Tuesday night after 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz retired with a thigh-area injury in the second set of their quarterfinal, an anticlimactic end to a match that Auger-Aliassime had controlled to that point with a 6-3, 3-1 lead.

“I feel for him,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I was expecting a tough battle, and I didn’t see it coming. It’s unfortunate to finish like this. But I’m happy to be through to the semifinals to give myself a shot to play for a Grand Slam final.”

Felix Auger-Alliassime serves during his U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Carlos Alcaraz.
Felix Auger-Alliassime serves during his U.S. Open quarterfinal match against Carlos Alcaraz.

This was always the path Auger-Aliassime was supposed to be on. When he burst onto the scene of the ATP Tour, he seemed to have everything you need to be elite in today’s game: Loads of power to play first strike tennis, explosive athleticism and a 6-foot-4 frame that gave him huge range to cover the court.

In the spring of 2019, he started to cash in on that promise when he traveled to South America for the clay court swing, making the finals of Rio de Janeiro and the quarterfinals in Sao Paulo. He followed that up by winning seven straight matches to go from qualifying to the semifinals of the Miami Open. Then he made two more finals, cutting his ranking from outside the top-100 to 19th in the span of six months.

It seemed obvious that he was on a path toward superstardom. But surprisingly, and somewhat frustratingly, that next big leap still hasn’t happened.

Since his breakout in 2019, he still hasn’t cracked the top-10, though that will change if he beats No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev on Friday. He’s made eight ATP Tour finals and hasn’t won a set in any of them. Until Wimbledon this year, he hadn’t made a Grand Slam quarterfinal. And he still takes too many bizarrely bad losses like at the Tokyo Olympics when Max Purcell, the 198th-ranked player, knocked him out of the first round in straight sets.

All of that has set up a strange dynamic around Auger-Aliassime, who has accomplished significantly more than any other 21-year-old on the planet while also in some ways not achieving what he should have by now.

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“I’ve gotten impatient sometimes,” Auger-Aliassime said. “This year and last year, I had losses that I was disappointed with either in the Grand Slams or Masters, and I think I just learned to accept them to keep my self-belief high to keep working well and that things would come. You never know exactly when, but at some point things would click and I’d get a great result.”

One of the major issues that held Auger-Aliassime’s progress back was his serve. In 2019, he won just 49% of his second serve points and double-faulted an average of 3.7 times a match. In 2020, that stat went up to 4.2 per match, and there seemed to be a bit of a confidence issue at key moments as well as some technical problems with his ball toss.

Auger-Aliassime has clearly put in significant work on that serve, as he’s had 85 aces through five matches and has won 81% of the points when he gets the first serve in.

“I feel like I’m on the right rhythm,” he said. “You look at the numbers I don’t have maybe the most powerful serve but I’ve been hitting my spots well, mixing the zones and feel confident behind my serve so it’s a great weapon that I’m developing lately and I have to keep going in that direction right now.”

Auger-Aliassime has also been working since December with Toni Nadal as an addition to his team along with longtime coach Frederic Fontang. Nadal, of course, is better known around the tour as “Uncle Toni,” as he coached his nephew Rafael Nadal from childhood until 2017. With Auger-Aliassime clearly moving forward now in his progress at the Grand Slams, the partnership seems to be paying off.

“I think he’s helped me improve maybe the consistency of my game, the quality of my movement, my focus and mainly I think the big thing overall is the belief and confidence that he brings to myself and everybody involved in my team,” Auger-Aliassime said. “On one part you have Frederic who’s been with me since I’m young, who knows me and every aspect of my game and the long-term vision for me. And you’ve got Toni, who’s been in the places we want to go one day, winning these big tournaments and being No. 1 in the world and brings that belief that it’s doable if we work in the right direction.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Felix Auger-Aliassime finally into a Grand Slam semifinal at US Open