MONTREAL — When Felix Auger-Aliassime stepped onto a small practice court to hit a few balls on Friday night ahead of the Rogers Cup, he wasn’t expecting anyone to be there. To his surprise, the stands were filled with fans.
That made things clear for the Montreal native — the spotlight is squarely on him this week as he prepares to play his hometown event for the first time in his young career.
Auger-Aliassime, ranked 22nd in the world, goes up against Vancouver’s Vasek Pospisil (ranked 207th) in the first round Monday night.
“People were happy to come watch me practice,” Auger-Aliassime said on Saturday afternoon at IGA Stadium. “For sure that’s a different feeling. I would be lying if I said I’m going on the court and it feels like any other tournament. It’s special. Hopefully I can use that energy and support in a good way.
“The trap is that there’s a lot of attention. I’m going to put more pressure on myself. I have to put that aside and really focus on what I have to do prior to my first round and for the rest of the week.”
Auger-Aliassime is having a big year. The 18-year-old has won 28 matches already this season and holds a 12-4 record in his past four tournaments. The teen had only won six matches in his entire career prior to 2019.
Auger-Aliassime, who will turn 19 on Thursday, reached three ATP finals in the past six months as he continues to seek his elusive first title. He lost to Serbia’s Laslo Djere in the final in Rio de Janeiro, France’s Benoit Paire in Lyon and Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in Stuttgart.
At the Miami Open in March, the Canadian defeated Hubert Hurkacz, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Borna Coric without dropping a single set before losing to American John Isner in the semifinal.
Auger-Aliassime started the year ranked 106th in the world. He cracked the top-100 in February and reached a career-high No. 21 earlier this summer.
“I’m feeling really good,” he said. “I’m playing well. I’m having a really nice season. I really trust my abilities right now. I’m doing good things.
“My service game has improved this year. It’s allowed me to perform better on all surfaces. I’ve become more consistent — fewer highs and lows.”
Auger-Aliassime wants to ride that momentum into his hometown tournament, where he faces Pospisil for the third time in his career. Auger-Aliassime is 2-0 against the Vancouver native, who got a wild card into the Rogers Cup.
He beat Pospisil in straight sets 6-2, 7-6(4) at Indian Wells last year and again in the first round at Wimbledon last month, winning 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in a nearly three-hour match.
The pair is also playing doubles together in Montreal this year.
“I just laughed. I saw it coming,” said Auger-Aliassime of the first-round match against Pospisil. “We’re good friends, but once we step on the court, we’re going to compete at our best, like we did at Wimbledon. We’re able to put our friendship aside for the time of the match.
“The two times I’ve played him, I was able to dictate the points well. I was able to take control of the rallies. Both times, I served pretty well and secured my service games.”
The winner of that first-round match could face top-ranked Canadian Milos Raonic in the second round.
The Thornhill, Ont., product, ranked 20th in the world, was initially to play American Taylor Fritz in the opening round. But Raonic jumped up in seeding when Kevin Anderson withdrew, and will face France’s Lucas Pouille (No. 29).
“While I was waiting for my bags at the airport, I got a message from the tour manager saying the draw had changed, that Anderson had pulled out,” said Raonic. “I wasn’t aware that I was next in line.”
Raonic has a 3-1 record against Pouille. They last met at the Australian Open this year with Pouille winning 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-4.
“It’s going to be tough,” Raonic said. “He bested me quite handily this year in Australia. I have to hopefully find a good level of tennis and keep a good physical condition.”
Kelsey Patterson, The Canadian Press