Marseille. Monday, February 17. Félix Auger-Aliassime arrives in the Mediterranean city to play the 13 Open where he will reach the final, just as he did in Rotterdam the week before. The young Canadian is installed in the Player's Lounge when veteran pro Gilles Simon passes by. "That guy's going to win loads of money. Loads and loads," the Frenchman teases. Félix smiles, half embarrassed, half amused. "He says that to me all the time, every week!" But behind the joke lies a reality, a source of deep reflection for the upcoming star from Quebec.
In men's tennis, where young players rarely perform at such a high level, Auger-Aliassime has been bluffing everyone with his precocity for months. There has not been an 18-year-old as highly ranked since Lleyton Hewitt at the end of the last century – and you have to go back to a certain Rafael Nadal to find a player under 20 in the world top 20. Things are going fast, very fast, for him. And it's nothing new. A junior Roland-Garros finalist at 15 and the youngest player to win a match on the pro circuit as a challenger, he has become used to making a mockery of his age and raising expectations.
Félix Auger-Aliassime at the age of 15
Image credit: Getty Images
An idea that goes back a long way
"No, it's nothing new," Auger-Aliassime tells Eurosport. "I'm taking it all in my stride. But that's how it has to be now. Even if everything happened quickly, I did it the right way, without forcing anything, while trying to remain calm. What made me jump up the rankings quickly was that I took each step as it came." This is a young man far too grounded to get carried away, or to have an over elevated opinion of himself.
His head was turned just the once, last summer, and even then, because others had put him on a pedestal that did not yet belong to him. "I felt a bit of vertigo before Wimbledon," he admits. "I had made the final in Stuttgart, a semi-final at Queens and arriving at Wimbledon I heard people say that I was pretty much among the favourites for the title. I told myself to calm down. It stressed me out a little." But he coped. "I have to adapt to this new life, to these new pressures. For the time being, I have been lucky that these periods of adaptation are rather short-lived, but they are still there."
Truth be told, there's no need to be too worried about Auger-Aliassime. Nestled just inside the top 20 six months away from his twentieth birthday (on August 8, the same date as his idol Roger Federer), he's well in control of his progress. Gilles Simon is right. At the dawn of a promising career, FAA – as he's known – will surely amass a fair bit of money. He knows this. It's for this very reason that he asked himself this question: what should I do with these winnings to, in his words, "make sense" of it all? "It's an idea which came to me when I was very young, a long time ago now," he explains. "Of course, earnings are something that give you personal freedom, a comfort for yourself and your family. But it's also there to help others."
A shared vision to help others
As soon as he entered adolescence, Auger-Aliassime promised himself that, when the day came, he would find a way of "making this money make a difference". Since the beginning of 2020, his promise has taken a concrete turn with the launch of a project baptised #FAAPointsForChange, with the support of BNP Paribas and CARE, an NGO fighting global poverty by empowering girls and women. The principle is simple: for each point won in an official match, Auger-Aliassime gives $5 to contribute to the EduChange programme, which works to help educate young people in Togo, his father's birth country. What's more, BNP Paribas will match every point with a $15 donation.
The global coronavirus crisis effectively brought Félix's season to a standstill – just as it did for everyone else on the circuit. But he did not want that to spell the end for his #FAAPointsForChange campaign. So he came up with a solution: for all his matches cancelled this springtime, he would apply the same criteria to his 2019 results instead. This will concern the following tournaments: the Masters 1000 events of Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, as well as the Barcelona and Lyon ATP 500 events. Based on his 2019 performances, he scored 1661 points in these seven tournaments, which will add more than $33,000 to his fund-raising goals.
It was at the end of last spring that the transition from idea to project materialised. Just before Roland-Garros, FAA approached BNP Paribas for what turned out to be a happy incidence of perfect timing. "We were also thinking of a project like this, saying that we would like to do it with someone who shares the same values as us," reveals Vincent-Baptise Closon, the tennis manager at the French bank. "It's pretty incredible how we met someone who shared the same desires, the same vision, at the same time." Auger-Aliassime echoes this sentiment, describing the collaboration as the fruit of "a beautiful coincidence, an encounter almost by chance but one which made complete sense."
What is striking is not so much seeing a tennis champion throw himself into charity work, but rather a boy of 18/19 getting involved so early in this kind of initiative with such a long term vision, a young man who already feels the need to transcend sport and give another dimension to his career. "It's not that my career wouldn't have made sense without this project, it's just that it takes it to another level," the Montreal native says. "It gives a lot more meaning to what I do on the court." Proof that Auger-Aliassime is not quite like the others, the young man in him being as precocious as the player.
Mature beyond his years
"I first heard about him when he was 14 years old," says Closon. "Everyone that I met in the world of tennis told me that not only did he have fairly unique tennis potential, but above all that, on a human level, he was pretty incredible in respect to his simplicity and maturity. And that's exactly what you find when you chat to him today. To be honest, I've been in the sport for a long time and he's one of the best guys I've met. Even in the way he expresses himself, he's pretty incredible."
Just through seeing and hearing him, the maturity of Félix Auger-Aliassime shines through – although it's fair to say that he finds such compliments rather embarrassing. "It's not up to me to say, 'I'm mature'," he smiles. "If I told you that, I'm not quite sure what you'd think. I'm just faithful to my values and my education. The way I behave on the court and in everyday life, the way I speak with people – this all comes from how my parents taught me to be. And this project, it fits in with our family values."
"He's someone who knows what he wants, and he's very clear about the direction he wants for his projects which is totally in sync with his human side," Closon confirms. "It's extremely pleasant working with him. And what I also find great is that these qualities are replicated in his entourage as well." Last September, when finalising everything, Closon indeed spent two days with the Auger-Aliassimes in Montreal.
Image credit: Getty Images
A family project
Auger-Aliassime was always insistent that his #FAAPointsForChange would not be a solitary engagement. "Bringing my family into this project was extremely important," he stresses. "I discussed it with my father, my mother, my sister. I wanted our partners, like BNP, to understand that they were not only collaborating with me, but with the entire Auger-Aliassime family."
The framework of the project still needed to be decided. Which NGO would they work with and in which part of the world? Having weighed up several options, Auger-Aliassime decided to focus his engagement on youth and Africa. In particular, in Togo and through the CARE charity "because they have people in place and know the precise needs of the children".
"There were lots of possible projects, lots of worthy causes to support, even in Canada and in France," the Canadian tyro says. "But after careful consideration, I believe that the children over there are far from the problems that we encounter in countries like ours. They really need help."
If the choice of Togo came after much reflection, it was also a pretty natural decision. It's the birth country of the man who gave him the tennis bug – his father, Sam, who moved to Canada in 1996. Félix's own unique journey in the footsteps of his African roots, at the age of 13, also helped sway his future commitment: "I spent two weeks there with my father. It was a beautiful trip. It was partly a holiday, but I saw his friends and uncles whom I met for the first time in my life. It opened my mind. It brought tears to me yes to see the difficulty in which many people lived. For them, 25 cents was a huge gift. It touched me and I told myself that the day I could help them, I would."
Remembering where he came from
It was once again by chance that, during this trip, Auger-Aliassime passed through Kara, the same region of Togo where his project with BNP Paribas and CARE will focus its effort. "At an organisational level, the whole process came down to quantified analyses to work out where the needs were the most glaring and important," Closon says. "However, it just so happened that Félix had already been to one of the villages we are working with. It was not a village with any specific ties to his family, so there was no particular reason for him to go, but it was nicely symbolic."
Canadian, Québécois, and of Togolese origin, Auger-Aliassime calls himself, with a laugh, a "citizen of the world". But he adds, with a little more seriousness: "Wealth is a beautiful gift. I also have a feeling of belonging to France. I come her often, it's a country which has given me opportunities and I have a team which is practically entirely French around me. I clearly have a very deep attachment to Canada and to Quebec. When I'm far away, I miss Montreal. And my African roots are very present. I've kept them alive through the Togolese tales my father would tell me and my sister when we were young. I am proud of all that. At the end of the day, I want to always remember where I came from."
Remembering where he came from, and where his people came from. People who, like his father, crossed an ocean to start a new but uncertain life; people who, he stresses, "sacrificed a lot", as if holding this as a reminder of the responsibilities that now fall on his shoulders. "What my father instilled in me is that as long as you have a roof over your head, food on your plate and you are alive, then you must keep working and believing. He passed on to us a rigorous work ethic." The same can be said for his mother, Marie, who herself has been involved in humanitarian work in the past and who always championed a good education for her son. "She always wanted me to educate myself, to learn what I could, and to be attentive to others," FAA stresses.
Image credit: Getty Images
Fear of marketing
Bound to the project for the next four years, Félix Auger-Aliassime plans to visit Togo in a few months "to see in person how things are going". But he hopes to commit for the long term – and not necessarily only for the birth country of his father. "It was logical to help Togo first, but maybe afterwards we will be able to touch and help other countries," he says. "The project is in its infancy – much like my career. What I like about getting started very young is that hopefully it will grow alongside my career at the same time."
To a certain extent, it has already had an impact on his game. "Victory or defeat, I'm bringing in money, and that's motivating and fun," he says. "His trainer immediately saw the benefits of this scheme," Vincent-Baptiste Closon adds. "Félix told him, 'When I'm trailing 40-0, rather than giving up the game to take a seat, I'm going to try and score a point or two because I know they won't be for nothing.' This will help him on the court. It perhaps won't make a difference for his results, but it could give him a boost on the court and that would be great."
When it comes down to it, Félix only has one fear: that the motivations behind his commitment are questioned. "I did say to BNP Paribas and to my agent that we had to be very careful because the objective remains clear: this is not just a marketing and public relations gimmick," he insists. "The important thing is not for people to say, 'Oh isn't Félix great doing all tha t stuff for the children of Togo', but rather, 'Yes, we can see it's not easy for children in Togo, but five dollars per point could really help'. I'm not doing this so I can say, 'I'm a good guy'. If people say that about me, fine, but that's not the point." But we'll tell him anyway: that Félix Auger-Aliassime is one of life's good guys.
Written by Laurent Vergne - translated by Felix Lowe