“In the last month of last year I was starting to think that there might be a possibility for me in the future to work with someone with a lot of experience at the highest level,” Auger-Aliassime said after today’s match. “We were lucky to be able to make contact with Toni. I'm very lucky to be able to learn from him and benefit from his experience and work with him. Of course, there's a lot of work to do, but it's a good association and I'm very happy.”
On Monday, amid thick cloudy conditions, the 21st-ranked Auger-Aliassime jumped off to a 4-2 lead versus 24th-ranked Cristian Garin. Rain put the match on hold. Upon resumption Tuesday, this time in sunshine, Auger-Aliassime held to go up 5-2. Through the first seven games, Garin was often more bystander than participant, his court position frequently in deep retreat as the Canadian cracked drives into the corners, tossed in the occasional drop shot and showed off the crisp, all-court prowess that has made him a young player of interest for several years.
Then came the moments a new coach lives for. With Garin serving at 2-5, Auger-Aliassime held two set points, lost both, dropped the game, and surrendered his serve. Even then, Auger-Aliassime rebounded well enough to earn two more set points on Garin’s serve at 5-6. On the first, Auger-Aliassime made a shot-selection error, trying to terminate the point with a down-the-line backhand when it might have been better to sustain the rally and hit crosscourt. On the second, Auger-Aliassime misfired on a forehand—one of 21 unforced errors off that side he’d make in the first set. Garin held to take the first set into a tiebreaker.
“The conditions were different because yesterday was a rainy day,” said Auger-Aliassime. “The ball was not bouncing so high. The conditions were slower. It was different. I can't say it was better or worse. Today was good for me, too. I was happy to see the sunshine and more normal conditions.”
Auger-Aliassime bears the blessing and the curse of long being considered a future great. Ah, the future, that abstract residence for dreams and possibilities. But when you play a tennis match, the future is meaningless in the face of the present—in this case a fit Chilean who plays in a manner reminiscent of that poster child for pitching a tent in the moment, David Ferrer. These are the kind of opponents who turn dreams into nightmares.
Garin makes a move. (Getty Images)
Garin’s ascent has been far less visible. In 2013, at 17,, he won the Roland Garros junior title, beating Borna Coric in the semis and Alexander Zverev in the final. As a pro, he’s won five ATP singles titles, all coming on clay. Now 24, Garin appears likely headed into his most productive years.
The tiebreaker swiftly went Garin’s way. Superbly hunkered down and having withstood Auger-Aliassime's earlier opportunities, Garin went up 4-0 and ran it out, 7-3.
From there, Garin’s airtight play continued. By this point, it was hard to imagine Auger-Aliassime doing anything to get back in the match, particularly given how much his forehand had eroded over the course of the first set, and the exemplary manner with which Garin patrolled the court. So it was that Garin easily took the second set, 6-1.
Toni Nadal has long been regarded less for his technical or even tactical prowess, but instead, as a philosopher of sport and life. One of his signature quotes: “Endure, put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in. If you don’t learn that lesson, you’ll never succeed as an elite athlete.”
A new stage of Auger-Aliassime's young career has begun. (Getty Images)
Perhaps Toni will tell his defeated charge that this defeat was an even better way than a victory for the two to commence their collaboration. It is fascinating to ponder the thousands of hours Toni spent thinking and talking with his fellow Nadals—not just Rafa—about how to thrive as a tennis player. Fabled are the stories of Toni providing the young Rafa with lessons on comportment, awareness, manners, struggle, loss, victory, balance, engagement.
But Toni is not the uncle with Auger-Aliassime. His credibility earned him the chance to work alongside Auger-Aliassieme’s longstanding coach, Frederic Fontang. So from where comes Toni’s leverage? How do he and Auger-Aliassime build their connection and find mutual language? In a TED talk he gave in 2018, Toni said, “I believe that character builds up thanks to difficulty.”
So this is the plane of thought Auger-Aliassime’s new team member occupies. The forehand is one thing, the notion of character is another. What concepts will Toni share with Auger-Aliassime about competition, and how one can go from holding four set points to getting steamrolled in the next set? Or, do the two simply put that behind them and look ahead?
How well Nadal and Auger-Aliassime dig into these questions will tell much of what’s to come for their partnership.