Felix Auger-Aliassime might just be tennis' first YouTube star. He leapt onto the social-media scene at 14 years old, qualifying and then winning two matches at an ATP Challenger, the minor league tournaments that rank just behind the top level ATP tour.
Winning against seasoned pros at such a young age would have been noteworthy itself, but it was the YouTube clip of his 43-shot rally against Darian King that made him go viral. The video of the skinny youngster hitting jumping forehands, bossing the point and then producing a winning dropshot created a sensation:
At the US Open just a few weeks later, agents, coaches and other tennis observers were scrambling to get a look as Auger-Aliassime played Tommy Paul on a small side court. Famed coach Brad Gilbert said he had never seen such skills in a player of that age, and Auger-Aliassime's ranking backed that up.
The young Canadian's 2015 run at the Granby challenger, played in his home province of Quebec, was just his second pro event (a few months before, he had qualified for the Drummondville challenger, also in Quebec, before withdrawing with injury). It took him up 488 spots to No.797, making him the youngest player to ever reach the Top 800 in the rankings.
It didn't take long for him to become the youngest in the Top 500, and he's now currently the youngest player in the Top 200: 17 years old, at No. 169.
Those figures have also drawn frequent attention to Auger-Aliassime's birthday, August 8, 2000—the same birthdate as Roger Federer, just minus 19 years. It is a fitting symbol of the great expectations that have settled around the prodigious teenager.
His first challenger title in Lyon in 2017 linked Auger-Aliassime to more of the game's legends. He was the seventh-youngest player to win an ATP Challenger, placing him in between sixth-ranked Rafael Nadal and eighth-ranked Novak Djokovic. (In third is the currently flailing Bernard Tomic, so this may not be a sure-fire guarantee of success.)
The 17-year-old has just started playing ATP events, falling in the first round of Rotterdam and Marseille in recent weeks but showing off his shotmaking flair.
There have been signs of his budding star status this week at Indian Wells. Auger-Aliassime won three matches to qualify for his first ATP Masters 1000 event, and by the time he stepped on Stadium 2 for his first round against fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil, a large and largely pro-Auger-Aliassime crowd had gathered to watch the contest. They cheered as he won in straight sets, seeming to find the occasion less intimidating than his more experienced friend and opponent.
"I was really surprised the amount of people that were there," he said, speaking to press in the large press conference room that is mostly kept for the top players. "The whole stadium was almost packed. You know, it was great. The atmosphere was just unbelievable."
But despite this reception, Auger-Aliassime doesn't consider himself famous at the moment.
"No, not yet, I don't think so. It will come eventually—maybe," he smiled.
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Still, his coach, the experienced Frederic Fontang, knows that Auger-Aliassime isn't just another anonymous pro. "He has a reputation," Fontang told TENNIS.com. "That's the consequence of his performances. It's something natural. At a high level, players are used [to] social media, press."
But Fontang acknowledges that the visibility provided by social media is something that now has to be taken into account when developing a promising player.
"The social media is something you have to have under control," Fontang said. "If you are reading everything, sometimes your energy can drop, it can be negative things. But, when you have good maturity, you can make the difference between the positives and the negatives.
"This is the case of Felix."
That's because he considers Auger-Aliassime's mentality to be as solid as his shots.
"Felix has great athletic qualities, and he also has good maturity, a good education," said Fontang. "For his age, he can stay composed on the court and also off the court talk about a lot of things."
That includes "movies, philosophy, books," said Fontang, drawing a little look from Auger-Aliassime sitting beside him, but who nevertheless agreed.
"It's true. We talk a lot," he said.
While Auger-Aliassime now receives more attention and demands, the teenager is still concentrating on developing his game, which is based on big serving and big forehands.
"I'm an aggressive player, but I think the coverage of the court is something I have been working on," he told press. "And I think it's paying off now with the big guys, you know, to be able to cover the court, to move well, and then to defend and stay in the points. That's something that, you know, that helps me a lot."
During the offseason, Auger-Aliassime received official designation as a player to watch when he was invited to train with Roger Federer. It was a valuable week for the top prospect, but he injured himself following the session and had to delay his start the season.
As he worked his way back and attempted to join the upper ranks, he received encouragement from fellow Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, who has been on a similar road. The pair are such good friends Shapovalov refers to them as "brothers," and have had dinner and played ping pong this week at Indian Wells.
"I told him to keep grinding. If he wins a couple of these matches, he'll get his confidence," said Shapovalov. "His game is more than good to be Top 100."
That's something Auger-Aliassime has been showing this week, and with his win over Pospisil, he'll get to face Canada's top player, Milos Raonic, in the biggest meeting of his young career. Either way, it will cap a milestone week.
"Firsts are always good. You know, get your first win, you break the ice. And then after, it's like the next time I'm on the stadium, it's something I have seen before. Next time I'm playing in front of so many people on live TV is something I have seen before. So I think that's going to help me in the future, obviously."
Those firsts seem likely to keep coming.
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