Auger-Aliassime is ticking all the boxes as he climbs the ATP ranks

Auger-Aliassime is ticking all the boxes as he climbs the ATP ranks

The 18-year-old beat Cam Norrie in the opening round at Indian Wells, flashing his solid-from-the-ground-up game in the process.

On Wednesday, Felix Auger-Aliassime did what all famous tennis players do when they walk off the practice courts at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden: He worked the rope line like a celebrity, signing autographs and taking selfies with fans. In truth, there weren’t all that many fans there, certainly not the 20-people-deep crowds that greet the Nadals and Serenas of the world. And a few of the fans who were there didn’t seem entirely sure who this fresh-faced kid was when he took their pens.

Which is perfectly fine, and to be expected. Auger-Aliassime is 18, he’s ranked 58th, and he has played exactly one Grand Slam event, at last year’s US Open, where he lost in the first round. While awestruck tennis heads have been glued to videos of his junior matches for years now, his name isn’t likely to roll off the tongue of the average American sports fan.

But it will soon. The most distinctive thing about Auger-Aliassime’s rise so far is how  logically and methodically it has played out. He has gone from Internet sensation at 14, to US Open junior champion at 16, to one of only two teenagers in the ATP Top 100—the other is his friend and countryman Denis Shapovalov—at 18. Two weeks ago, Auger-Aliassime reached his first 500-level final on red clay—a surface that’s hardly associated with his home country—at the Rio Open.

Yet there also hasn’t been a sense that FAA has moved up too fast, or flown too high too soon. He hasn’t taken any shortcuts, and his ranking and fame aren’t reliant on a flashy, unrepeatable result. Two summers ago, Shapovalov’s win over Nadal in Montreal launched him into a stratosphere that he may not have been quite ready to enter, but Auger-Aliassime has looked comfortable moving step by step and ticking off all the boxes along the way.

In 2016, he was a junior Slam champion. In 2017 and 2018, he hit the pro-tour road like any other no-name rookie and won nine Challenger and Futures titles. Last month, he clinched a Davis Cup tie for Canada on clay, and then embarked on a grueling, three-tournaments-in-three-weeks South American tour that felt like a rite of passage. When he reached the final in Rio—a run that included hard-earned wins over Fabio Fognini and Pablo Cuevas—I expected him to pull out of the next event, in Sao Paulo. But he kept slogging, and kept winning.

After all of that, Auger-Aliassime looked pleased to be back on hard courts in Indian Wells on Thursday, and his game looked like it had been sharpened to fine, glinting edge. He stormed out of the gate against Cam Norrie, winning the first three games in eight minutes. He drilled aces, he flicked forehand winners, he made a delicate half-volley drop and followed it with an overhead that he had to leap back to hit.

Despite that, I thought Norrie, a semifinalist in Acapulco who is the dictionary definition of the word pesky, might wear Auger-Alissiame down in the long run. And he did earn a break point at 2-4 in the first set, and another at 2-3 in the second, either of which could have put him back in the match. But Auger-Aliassime came up with service winners on both of those points, and navigated his way through trouble with impressive composure. In a 6-3, 6-2, 63-minute win, FAA made 80 percent of his first serves, hit 20 winners to Norrie’s eight, and converted all three of his break points.

“We’re seeing him develop in real time,” Tennis Channel’s Brett Haber said, and it was hard not to agree.

Even if he weren’t producing results like this yet, Auger-Aliassime would be a player to look out for, based on how solid and thorough his technique is, and how poised he remains when things aren’t going his way. His service motion is a paragon of coiled efficiency that allows him to use all of his leg power. He gets a full body rotation and extension on his two-handed backhand. Most promising, and scary, is his forehand, which he hits with a seemingly ideal mix of safe net clearance and forward-kicking power. There’s nothing weird or unorthodox about FAA’s strokes, and he rarely tries to do too much with them. Demeanor-wise, he has the poker face to match; I’ve yet to see him come unglued or sabotage his own chances—that’s saying something for an 18-year-old.

Next up for Auger-Aliassime is Stefanos Tsitsipas. For us tennis heads, it’s a match-up that speaks for itself. For the rest of the world, FAA may be soon be a very familiar set of sports-world initials, and the selfie-seekers at Indian Wells soon stand 20-deep as he works the rope line.

“Famous? Not yet, I don’t think so,” Auger-Aliassime said with a smile when he was asked about his level of notoriety here last year. “It will come eventually, maybe.”

No maybes about it this time around.