MIAMI, Fla.—By 11:00 A.M. on Tuesday, as Felix Auger-Aliassime took his final practice cuts on the Grandstand court here, the heat was already fierce enough to make a non-Florida native a little woozy. The fans that had begun to gather for the Canadian’s noon match with Nikoloz Basilashvili struggled to make it up the stairs, and wiped the sweat from their foreheads as soon as they sat down.
Auger-Aliassime isn’t a Florida native—he grew up in chilly Montreal—but he didn’t seem to have a problem with the conditions. The 18-year-old drove himself through all of his pre-match drills with the same, self-contained, ultra-serious focus we’ve come to expect from him during matches.
Which was a good thing, because he was going to need all of that focus on a day like this, and against an opponent like the 18th-ranked Basilashvili, who has rarely met a ball he desperately hasn’t wanted to pulverize. Auger-Aliassime, who came through qualies in Miami, had already won five matches here, three of them in three sets. (I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is the last tournament where we’ll be able to call him by that semi-pejorative term, “qualifier.”)
It was clear from the start that, in these conditions, with two opponents who appeared evenly-matched, this wasn’t going to be match that was going to be won with glamorous ball-striking skills. It was going to be a match that, like a lot of ATP matches in the later rounds of big events, was going to be won in unglamorous ways: Because one player could dig deep and find a first serve when he was down break point; because one player would miss an easy ball he should have made in a tiebreaker; because one player would persevere through a few bad errors, in the hopes that his opponent might make the same errors a few minutes later.
You might think that Auger-Aliassime—a teenager, a tour rookie, half-gassed from five matches and a ton of tennis over the last two months—would not have been that player. He was irritable for much of the first set, complaining to his camp about the way he was flicking at his backhand, pointing to his head after he made bad decisions, throwing his arms up in exasperation when a fan’s cell phone went off in the middle of his service motion. While Auger-Aliassime is 6’4”, he looks even more wiry up close than he does on TV; if this match was going to be a test of raw physicality, the 27-year-old Basilashvili was probably going to prevail.
At 5-5 in the first set, the FAA bubble seemed to burst when he missed three straight forehands and was broken. Had we discovered a flaw in the Canadian’s seemingly ironclad game? On all three points, he missed a first serve, was caught off-guard by the pace of Basilashvili’s second-serve return, and shanked a forehand.
But with conditions the way they were, perfect tennis was never in the cards for either guy today. At 6-5, Basilashvili wasted no time in handing the break back to Auger-Aliassime, which sent the set to a tiebreaker. It was there that Auger-Aliassime showed again what already makes him such a formidable competitor—patience, power, and the ability to forget.
Auger-Aliassime started the breaker with an ace, and came up with two more to swing the score from 3-4 to 5-4. Just as impressive, though, was the way he recovered from a double fault. Rather than let it bother him, he took the next ball—a second-serve return from Basilashvili much like the three that Auger-Aliassime had shanked earlier—and nervelessly sent it down the line for a winner. Up 6-4, set point, Auger-Aliassime did the same thing to close it out.
Earlier this month, Auger-Aliassime was asked what his biggest strength was. He began by answering, “I’m pretty instinctive,” before pulling back and asking himself if that was the right choice of words. He finally decided that “belief” was more appropriate.
“Instinct? I always have a big belief in myself,” he said. “I go for my shots.”
After watching Auger-Aliassime live for the first time since he turned pro, I would say that instinct was the right way to put it. His performance today reminded me of seeing an 18-year-old Rafael Nadal on a side court in Key Biscayne in 2005. As with Rafa back then, there were imperfections in his strokes, especially on his backhand side. But the Canadian and the Spaniard each have a more important skill: They can leave those imperfections behind at just the right moments. Like Nadal, when Auger-Aliassime faces an important point, he instinctively gets more aggressive, and instinctively chooses the right shot.
Auger-Aliassime has now won six matches in Miami and reached his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal. From his junior days to his Challenger days to this week, when he wasn’t granted a wild card despite being a more-than-deserving candidate, FAA has shown the value of not taking short cuts. He started this match by pointing to his head after his bad decisions, as if to say, “How could I be so stupid?” He finished the day making the same gesture after his winning shots. It was as if Auger-Aliassime was saying the words we want to hear from all tennis players: “I’m figuring it out for myself.”