Before anything else, just watch someone ball out for a bit:
Now for some context: that’s a 17-year-old, serving to stay in a match, which also happens to be his first-ever match on the tour. More specifically, the 17-year-old is Félix Auger-Aliassime, dear friend of Shapo, fellow Canadian teen, recent training partner of Roger Federer, the youngest person to make the top 200 since Rafael Nadal did it in 2002, and as buzzed-about a young name as you will find in the sport. He will likely be an outrageously wealthy and famous man one day. Yesterday, you did not have to squint to see why that might be the case. After one set of palpable anxiety, over- and under-hitting and muffing his serves, Auger-Aliassime steadily warmed up over these three sets, and nearly won his tour debut, erasing three match points before losing the fourth to world No. 38 Filip Krajonovic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5. More importantly, Félix showcased the goods that will likely make him a fixture of the game over the next decade, and also, yes, an outrageously wealthy and famous guy. No pressure though, Félix.
From a pure watchability standpoint, it’s electrifying to see a newcomer come out smacking 49 winners in a debut. I’ll happily take the 53 errors that go with that. (Compare to that to more controlled Krajinovic, who had 19 and 23, to get a sense of the different styles on display in this match.) Auger-Aliassime requires little windup on his compact, cracking groundstrokes, achieves grown-up depth and pace, and shows no shyness about aiming for the lines. There is a controlled ferocity to his game that should age beautifully with time.
You could see all his talent contained in the seventh game of the match, which is about where he began to stir awake. On the set point, he shows how easily he’s able to wrench open a neutral rally, pushing Krajinovic around with angles, then using a low slice to lure his foe into the middle of the court, then placing two vicious forehands into the same spot, the second even more lethal than first. Then at deuce, it’s a serve out wide, forehand to the opposite corner—the one-two punch of the men’s game, a bread-and-butter move—and calmly cleaning up the leftovers at the net, knocking a tricky low volley into open court. Then, on the third point, he confidently steps into the court and beams a pure backhand down the line. Across three points: well-constructed long rally, an aggressive move to net, a care-free winner while stepping into the court. This is what it looks like to have options. This is a kid who will win his points in myriad ways, and might never leave us—much less his opponent—bored or expectant of what’s to come on the next ball.
It’s not just that Auger-Aliassime hits winners, it’s how he builds his way up to them, with foresight and poise that appear very sustainable. His serve is not yet an outright weapon (though he’s 6-foot-3 and athletic, so expect that to change). But he returns with ready hands and intelligence, keeping the ball deep and, when he can, right back to his opponent’s feet, as he does on the below point. That return earns him a soft reply, which he takes as a furious backhand down the line. It’s hard, but he hits it with plenty of margin for error; it’s good, but he knows it won’t be the kill shot. It will, however, get him there. The kill comes two shots later, when he is eventually fed a floaty ball to run around and strike inside-out at an audacious angle, almost making you forget that it landed on the baseline.
The teen’s best play did not abandon him in the tense final games of the match; dude stayed cool and full of his usual variety even as he fought to stay alive. Witness the easy control on this backhand winner struck with just the right touch from an awkward middling zone of the court, and see also the go-for-broke final forehand which he pipes down a very narrow corridor of winnerdom.
It is too early to say, of course, especially in this sport rife with unfulfilled prodigies, many of whom burn out, sometimes publicly and explosively. But Félix will very likely achieve his stated goal of finishing in the top 100 this year, and will maybe one day even pass up his free-flowing pal in the oversized baseball hat, currently ranked No. 47. No one could have predicted that Canada would follow up the entirely beige-flavored Milos Raonic with two virtuosic, balanced, creative tennis players, and no one’s mad about it, either.