As of today there are only two teenagers in the top 100 of men’s tennis. The game skews older than ever, and a player breaking into its top tier before even fully growing into his body has never seemed more difficult. There are no more Rafa-like wunderkinds ripping off major titles, and as baseline tennis makes ever more grueling demands of its athletes, there likely won’t ever be.
One of those two teens is Denis Shapovalov, who broke out in 2017, had some bright spots in 2018 amid the dead patches, and has had a quiet 7-5 start to 2019. (The Canadian can take solace in being one of two people to take even a set off Novak Djokovic during his crushing Australian Open title run.) But last week turned my attention to the other teen, Shapo’s countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime, who sprang 44 slots to No. 60 in the world after becoming the youngest player ever to make an ATP 500 final. It’s entirely possible that Auger-Aliassime passes up his older friend some time soon, given the clear thinking and trenchant shot-making he showed off on clay in Rio last week.
Auger-Aliassime, still six months out from his 19th birthday, is a known quantity among insiders. He was maybe the sport’s first organic viral sensation, sending ripples through YouTube well before he could operate a car. By the time he was good enough to play his first tour-level match on tour, around this time last year, he nearly won it, in dramatic fashion. Expectations for Auger-Aliassime have been high for some time, even with the disclaimer that junior results scarcely guarantee pro success. Sometimes it’s just easy to discern the poise of a future champ:
Before coming to Rio, Auger-Aliassime had yet to find much success against the best. At the 2018 U.S. Open, playing his first-ever match at a major—a buzzy if unfortunate duel against his buddy Shapovalov—he bowed out early with heart palpitations. In all, he’d been 2-6 against top-50 players. In Rio, his first-round test was the slumping but nonetheless dangerous pirate Fabio Fognini, and the teen surprised with a routine 6-2, 6-3 win. Here’s a nifty court-level look at how sharp Auger-Aliassime looked in the upset:
After notching his biggest career win, he went on to beat young players Christian Garin and Jaume Munar, each in straight sets. Clay is a court surface that has befuddled many a hardcourt-loving North American player, but it looked cozy for Auger-Aliassime. He’s won two Challenger-level titles on clay, picking up the trophy in Lyon two years running. It’s easy enough to see why his sound footwork, court coverage, and consistency translate to the surface.
In the semifinal, Auger-Aliassime faced clay specialist Pablo Cuevas, the world No. 59 who plays nearly his entire season on the dirt. They went a thrilling three sets before Felix won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Even as a viewer who already believes in Félix, a point like this felt like a signal to immediately double down:
Auger-Aliassime would lose in the final to Laslo Djere, but his run to the final confirmed that he has everything: the movement that lets him speedily recover even after being lured off the center, the compact but piercing groundstrokes that steadily send the ball into the back third of the court, keen reflexes at net, a strong serve that doesn’t leave him open him to attack, a great backhand return that lets him get over the ball and attack theirs, and a sense of when to spring with the drop shot. More assuring still is how patiently he builds these points, slowly getting the leverage in the rally, instead of flaring up and going for a winner outside his range.
Even at his age, he’s playing (and beating) veterans in a measured, cool manner. There’s a little more stability, a little less mania to his game compared to Shapo, whose signature is the violent one-handed backhand winner. Auger-Aliassime can find that highlight shot too; he just tends to work his way up to it more gradually. Both will be great, but it’s almost easier to envision him grinding through the draw at these events week after week, because there are fewer risks to his play from one point to the next, fewer ways to go haywire. His game is solid all the way through—which is not at all to say that it’s boring. We’ll be lucky to see him rise.