Laver Cup: How Felix Auger-Aliassime plans to break 'vicious cycle' of losing early

‘It’s probably the biggest challenge I’ve had so far in my career. We can’t always control how things go. But we can control the reaction.’ — Felix Auger-Aliassime on a tough 2023 season

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The legendary Roger Federer is confident that Felix Auger-Aliassime will find his wayward game.

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The master of analysis John McEnroe expects the 23-year-old Montreal native, who suffered a trio of stunning first-round exits this season at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, to overcome the adversity of a nagging knee tendon ailment to claim a Grand Slam title by the end of the 2024 campaign.

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And competitors in the Laver Cup that commences Friday at Rogers Arena, can’t say enough about Auger-Aliassime’s potential to once again dominate on the court and be a rallying force off it. The kudos come for good reason.

If the Canadian turns back the competitive clock to the 2022 Laver Cup in London, he can help stop his current skid and shift both body and mind into overdrive. His straight-sets dominance of Novak Djokovic and doubles triumph with Jack Sock over Matteo Berrentini and Andy Murray powered Team World to its first triumph over Team Europe in the fifth annual meeting of tennis giants.

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“Hopefully, I can be like last year — that would be great,” an upbeat Auger-Aliassime said Wednesday. “It would be great to end the season like that and I’ve done it before. And I have a belief deep inside of me that I can do that. 

“It wasn’t an accident. I can repeat that sort of level and consistency. I want to feel healthier and I’m constantly working on that and get back to how I was playing and I’m going to use this (Laver Cup) as an opportunity.

“It’s a pretty even matchup and I think we have a pretty good chance of winning. We have what it takes but Team Europe is always tough.”

Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime (C) lifts the trophy as Team World players celebrate on the court after victory over Team Europe in the 2022 Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London on September 25, 2022.
Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime (C) lifts the trophy as Team World players celebrate on the court after victory over Team Europe in the 2022 Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London on September 25, 2022. Photo by GLYN KIRK /AFP via Getty Images

Which, of course, will only make Auger-Aliassime more dialed in to help contribute in the supportive team environment. With teammates Ben Shelton, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Francisco Cerundolo — and Milos Raonic and Chris Eubanks serving as alternates — there’s a good chance of success.

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“I want to be the one who is dictating and taking control of the match,” added Auger-Aliassime. “I want to put myself in that position and work my way through that.”

The hope and the proof are in the results.

Auger-Aliassime followed up his London triumphs with an amazing 16-match winning streak and finished the year with a career-high No.6 ranking. His current rank is No.14.

Last year, Auger-Aliassime advanced to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and fourth round of the French Open. In 2021, he got to the quarterfinal at Wimbledon and semifinal at the U.S. Open.

It’s why the latest setback, a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 1-6, 4-6 loss to American Mackenzie McDonald at the U.S. Open earlier this month, was so shocking. The 40th-ranked McDonald took out the 15th seed, who was plagued by poor serving and returning.

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Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada returns a shot against Mackenzie McDonald of the United States during their Men's Singles First Round match on Day One of the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2023.
Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada returns a shot against Mackenzie McDonald of the United States during their Men’s Singles First Round match on Day One of the 2023 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2023. Photo by Al Bello /Getty Images

Auger-Aliassime was just 46 per cent in first-serve accuracy, committed 52 unforced errors and had 39 winners. He was also 1-for-13 in service-break opportunities and would see his 2023 tour match record fall to 14-15.

“My knee was holding up in August, but it was really mental,” he said of the early U.S. Open exit. “I felt I was practising well and playing better. The first set should have been mine — I had a set point at 5-4 — and it was a rally that I would usually clutch up and win that important point.

“It was frustrating. I wasn’t playing well when it really mattered.”

For now, Auger-Aliassime has to abide by the 10-90 Rule.

It’s 10 per cent of what occurs to you during a professional career — sub-par game, injury or other distractions — and 90 per cent how you deal with the adversity. And for Auger-Aliassime, who played free and easy as an 18-year-old ball of fire — and advanced to three ATP finals and the Davis Cup final — he’s playing a new game.

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This one is mind over matter. 

If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter. Playing through mid-match knee pain is a test of will and skill and Auger-Aliassime will be better off for passing the test.

After all, in 2022 he played into the second week of the Australian Open despite knee pain. He won 60 matches that year, four ATP titles, and in 2021, he became the first Canadian to advance to the U.S. Open semifinals.

“People closest to me, they see what I go through every day and they see my effort hasn’t changed,” pointed out Auger-Aliassime. “My dedication to a game I love hasn’t changed, but it’s been tough. The injury has taken a long time to heal and it’s kind of off and on.

“It was difficult to project myself throughout the year and that I could play many weeks in a row. I would get an early loss and be in this vicious cycle and losing early, losing some confidence and not being healthy.

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“It’s probably the biggest challenge I’ve had so far in my career. The last few years have been great and rising every year. This year, I’m trying to approach it with the best mentality because we can’t always control how things go.

“But we can control the reaction.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime
Felix Auger-Aliassime will be back playing for Team World at the 2023 Laver Cup in Vancouver. Photo by Clive Brunskill /Getty Images for Laver Cup

Gabriel Diallo would embrace the pressure and prestige of becoming the future face of Canadian tennis and he doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.

Close friend Auger-Aliassime serves as an obvious role model because it’s his drive and deportment that resonates with Diallo, who wants to be as good off the court as he has been on it.

Not only has the 21-year-old Montreal native taken his game to another level, he’s also earning a degree in finance.

“Felix is somebody I really look up to and I trained with his dad in Quebec City when I was 15,” Diallo told Postmedia at the 2022 Odlum Brown Vancouver Open.

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“And it’s not only his tennis game, it’s the way he carries himself off the court, He’s extremely professional and really well respected in the tennis world. It’s a great example to follow.

“I’m really proud to be Canadian and to be regarded as the future of Canadian tennis would be a huge honour for me. I’ll try to represent Canada the best way I can.”

Gabriel Diallo of Canada in action against Nicolas Gerry of Chile during the 2023 Davis Cup Finals Group Stage Bologna - Day 5 at Unipol Arena on September 16, 2023 in Bologna, Italy.
Gabriel Diallo of Canada in action against Nicolas Gerry of Chile during the 2023 Davis Cup Finals Group Stage Bologna – Day 5 at Unipol Arena on September 16, 2023 in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Giuseppe Bellini /Getty Images for ITF

For Auger-Aliassime, every bit of support and encouragement from family and friends means everything.

“It’s good to hear that,” Auger-Aliassime said Wednesday. “He’s a good friend and I was fortunate to start my career pretty early on and go through experiences at a young age — the pressure and high-level stress.

“So, to share some of these experiences when we play as a team, he’s been close to me and my family and we trained at my dad’s academy for a couple of years. He’s like family to me.”

bkuzma@postmedia.com

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