Felix Auger-Aliassime on 'big brother' Tsonga, working with Toni Nadal and Novak Djokovic vaccine row
In a revealing interview with Eurosport, Felix Auger-Aliassime talks about the role his childhood idol, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, played in his early career, adding Toni Nadal to his coaching team and why Novak Djokovic should be free to make his own decision surrounding vaccination. The Canadian star won his first title in Rotterdam earlier in February and spoke to Reem Abulleil at length.
Auger-Aliassime - 'I've had sleepless nights thinking about this title'
There was a brief moment caught on camera after the Rotterdam final earlier this month that showed an emotional Felix Auger-Aliassime huddled around a phone with his mother Marie and members of his team as they FaceTimed his father Sam to celebrate his maiden title triumph.
You could hear the sound of Auger-Aliassime choking up as he buried his face into his mother’s shoulder.
After losing all eight ATP finals he had reached, the Canadian was finally a title winner on tour. The word ‘relief’ may seem like an understatement when describing how he felt at that moment, but it’s the one he repeatedly used to reflect on that special day.
“Being with my team and when we called my dad and my mum being there, I think I just got emotional; just the fact that I struggled personally but I think the people around me saw me struggle with losing in those finals and not being able to achieve that,” Auger-Aliassime told Eurosport after announcing he had pulled out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
“I think I just got emotionally very happy and joyful. So it was a nice moment, to have my mom and my dad there on the phone. Definitely these emotions are what you play for.”
At just 21, Auger-Aliassime is ranked a career-high No. 9 in the world.
He is the current match-wins leader on tour this season – with 15 victories against four losses – and has reached the final in three of the four tournaments he has contested so far in 2022, capturing titles in Rotterdam and with Canada at the ATP Cup.
At the majors, Auger-Aliassime is arguably the most improved player over the past 18 months. He made it into the second week at five of his last seven Grand Slams, and reached the quarter-finals or better in his last three outings at that level.
Highlights: Medvedev saves match point to beat Auger-Aliassime in epic
With so much talent and promise on display from a young age – he made his first ATP final as an 18-year-old in Rio in 2019 – it was inevitable that Auger-Aliassime would go on to break his final hoodoo; but he admits the pressure to get that maiden title had been heavily weighing on him.
“I tried myself to stay positive all the time about it, even though sometimes it was almost like it was better to lose in semi-finals in a way,” he revealed.
“It was turned into something too negative. But it's also normal because this stat was standing out for sure.”
Ahead of this season, Auger-Aliassime sat down with his team to plan his 2022 campaign, with the main goal of clinching that first title. They added some tournaments he hadn’t competed in before and were looking to add more 250 events, which would potentially have smoother draws.
“But in the end I won at the 500 level, which is even better, beating some very good players,” said Auger-Aliassime, who knocked out two top-10 players in the semis (Andrey Rublev) and final (Stefanos Tsitsipas), as well as former world No. 1 Andy Murray en route to the trophy in Rotterdam.
The very next week, Auger-Aliassime marched to the final in Marseille, before falling to Rublev.
“In my opinion, he's one of the professional athletes on tour inside the court and outside the court,” Rublev said of Auger-Aliassime this week in Dubai.
“The way he does the things on the court, outside the court, it's super professional. I think one of the three top three, top four.
“He is always fighting. I think he has a really good thing that he controls emotions really well because some matches against him, maybe he can do many, many mistakes, and he still keeps focusing, keeps fighting.”
Even though he walked away with the runner-up trophy last Sunday in Marseille, his run there held a special meaning for Auger-Aliassime. In his opening round, he got to face – and beat – his childhood idol, French former world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – a player who made Auger-Aliassime feel like a career in tennis was attainable for an athlete of colour.
“I liked his charisma, his game was very explosive and he was fun to watch,” Auger-Aliassime says of what drew him to Tsonga when he was a kid.
“And also I can't deny the fact that since we both have the same background, skin colour and all that, or very similar at least, I just felt like as a kid, when you have representation on your TV, you feel like you can relate. It really felt like, ‘Oh, this could be me, you know?’
“So I think that's why I idolised him and I really looked up to him, because I really felt like I could relate, compared to other American or European players, where it felt a bit distant, it felt like, as a kid growing up, it felt like, ‘Okay, this is for them, this is not attainable for me’.
“But seeing Jo doing his thing, it felt like, okay, maybe we do have a similar story or background and it felt like he was a big brother.”
Tsonga during his defeat to Auger-Aliassime in Marseille
Image credit: Getty Images
Full circle moment
That match in Marseille felt like a “full circle moment” for Auger-Aliassime, who realised he was no in a position to inspire younger players, the same way Tsonga inspired him as a child.
“To be in the top 10, in that position where kids potentially look up to me and see something in me that they like or they feel inspired by what I do is a great feeling,” he explains. “Because ultimately, what I want to do is, of course, win as much as I can, win all the big titles, and try to be ranked as high as possible. But if I can leave a trace and inspire a generation with the sport that I do and what I do, I think at the end of the day that's the better feeling, if you feel like you've made a difference in a couple of kids’ lives.”
Auger-Aliassime was born in Montreal and picked up tennis when he was five, playing with his father, who emigrated from Togo to Canada and was a coach.
“I remember being taught very important lessons and values, such as work ethic, and discipline and resilience, and things that still are deep inside of me, that are still my core values,” Auger-Aliassime recalls of his early days with his dad on the tennis court.
“Those are my early memories. Of course it was a lot of fun playing with my sister (Malika), playing with my dad, I always loved being on the court.
“But at the same time very early on, my dad tried to, through education and through tennis, tried to put inside of us, my sister and I, some very important values of life for him; lots of lessons that will stay with me forever.”
Auger-Aliassime’s African roots mean a great deal to him. He visited Togo back in 2013 and two years ago, he announced he would donate $5 for every point he wins to EduChange, a project in partnership with CARE, to support the protection and education of children in Togo. He hopes to return to his father’s homeland “in the near future” for another visit.
During last year’s off-season, he went to Morocco on a trip with his girlfriend Nina to her family beach house and got to soak up the culture of the Arab and North African nation.
“We all know my dad's African, from Togo. So I always love going there and we had a great time,” he said of his Moroccan vacation.
“It is a beautiful country, beautiful culture. So wherever you can kind of get out of what you know normally and experience new things, I think it's very gratifying, it's very rich.”
Auger-Aliassime has managed to surround himself with a strong and supportive team on tour, which has directly contributed to his success on court.
His French coach Frederic Fontang has worked with him since 2017 and last year, Auger-Aliassime added Toni Nadal to his camp – a decision that has clearly paid dividends.
Auger-Aliassime has a special and close relationship with Fontang, and always makes sure the Frenchman gets the credit he deserves.
“Frederic is a very smart individual. He's very poised and he reflects a lot about many things and I think I like working with him because we go into the depth of things,” says Auger-Aliassime.
“We not staying in surface, I think we go really into details and we really try to see all the time how we can improve, the little things we can do better.
“And he's as involved as a coach could be. He's really like almost a family figure to me. He's completely into the project of trying to make me the best player I can be. And I think you need that to succeed, you need to be in it 100% and, and I think that's why it works really well with Fred.
“I think we can only just keep growing and be better. But we really have a big sense of loyalty and a strong bond together.”
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A sense of belonging
Toni Nadal coached and travelled with his nephew Rafael Nadal throughout his career up until 2017, when Toni decided to spend more time in Mallorca to focus on running the Rafa Nadal Academy.
Auger-Aliassime managed to lure the Spaniard back to the tour, albeit for a set number of weeks, and says Toni has brought an additional sense of confidence to the team, and a feeling like they belong at the very top.
“To talk with somebody that's been there and that's done the most, and to be able to have a kind of confirmation within like, ‘Okay, look, you're doing the right things. If you improve these things here and there you really could be, a great player in the future’. So to kind of have that confirmation from a coach like Toni, who's really seen it all; I think that put a lot of, even more belief and confidence with me and Fred,” said Auger-Aliassime.
“I remember those were our early conversations. He thought that I should improve a few things, if it's like my footwork, my placement or my construction of my points and things like this. And now that it feels like I've improved tremendously over the last year or so, now we really all have to believe that I can aim for the top.
“And also I think having him at the Grand Slams, especially our (semi-final) run at the US Open when we were all together; for him, it was something like normal. There was a sense of normality to be deep into the Grand Slams, to be in the semi-finals, potentially in the final.
“Because he’s been there before, as a whole team, we didn't feel like we were out of our place. We felt like we were right where we belonged.”
With one of his biggest goals for the season already checked off his list, Auger-Aliassime is clear on what he hopes to achieve moving forward.
More titles, deep runs at the majors, and a maiden qualification for the ATP Finals are high up on his list, although he is no rush, assuring that patience is key.
“They'll come when I deserve it and they'll come at the right time,” he adds.
Auger-Aliassime was due to compete in Dubai this week, but withdrew after going deep in Rotterdam and Marseille.
Djokovic return ‘good for the sport’
The tournament in the Emirates witnessed the return of Novak Djokovic, who was competing in his first event of the season and first since he got deported from Australia last month.
The Serb was given a warm welcome in Dubai, where he fell in the quarter-final to Jiri Vesely, and several players noted it was important to have Djokovic back on tour, even though his refusal to get vaccinated might keep him out of action at many events down the road.
“I do think it's good for the sport at the end of the day. I mean, he's a great player to watch,” said Auger-Aliassime.
“And as long as he's playing, it's good for a sport that he steps on the court and competes with all of us. That is good for the sport.
“As for the vaccination, I think he really explained it well. At the end he is not the only one, everybody's free to do whatever they want and we need to respect that; we for sure know people either in our family sometimes or in our group of friends or circle that are not, they don't want to get the vaccine.
“But I think he really accepts what comes with it and I think that's correct. You have to be free in the world to do what you want and accept what comes with it. And for me, that's totally fine.”