Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada celebrates winning against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in two sets, 6-4, 6-2, in their final men's singles match of the ABN AMRO world tennis tournament at Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Peter Dejong

Evolved Auger-Aliassime entering Indian Wells with high expectations for himself

Evolved Auger-Aliassime entering Indian Wells with high expectations for himself

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Félix Auger-Aliassime turned a long-awaited corner in his tennis career by winning his first career ATP Tour title in Rotterdam last month, in his ninth singles final.

But the spark that turned into a flame in 2022 was lit at the BNP Paribas Open last October.

And it came after a loss, an opening 6-4, 6-2 defeat at the hands of veteran Spanish lefty Albert Ramos-Viñolas.

It wasn’t that the 21-year-old Canadian lost, or even the seven double faults.

It was how he lost.

“It’s funny because as much as the wins are very meaningful, I feel like that loss was kind of a realization for me. I had just played really well in New York (at the U.S. Open) and made the semifinals. And I came here thinking, ‘Okay, this is going to keep going,” Auger-Aliassime said Friday.

“It was like I let my guard down a little bit – like I took a slap in the face like, ‘Hey, buddy, it’s not going to be so easy.’”

Auger-Aliassime said he lost the first set, and then it just went south from there. There was no fighting spirit, no trying to somehow find a solution to turn things around.

Auger-Aliassime played indoors in Vienna, Paris and Stockholm before wrapping up his season. But that day in the desert, something clicked.

“My mindset switched a little bit after that match. I had a talk with my team. And I had a talk with myself. I told myself I can’t afford to play these kinds of matches, any more,” he said. “There are always little stepping stones in a career, and that was a moment I won’t forget – that match, and the conversations that came after that match.”

Auger-Aliassime arrived in Australia for the 2022 season somewhat transformed. Well, perhaps “evolved” is a better description.

He won matches against players who had previously had his number.

And he made a deep run in his third consecutive Grand Slam tournament, reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals.

And then, just a few weeks later in Rotterdam, it culminated in his first title. The 21-year-old backed it up by reaching the final the next week in Marseille.

Auger-Aliassime was able to make a pit stop at home in Montreal for a week, on his way from Europe to California.

It was a palate cleanser in a way that has become increasingly rare as he’s risen up the rankings. The lack of time at home is something he feels now he may have underestimated; he was still so very young when the decision was made to relocate his base to Monaco.

Tennis-wise, it’s no-brainer. The weather is much better. There are a number of other top players who live in the area to practice with.

And when the ATP is in Europe, it’s a quick commute home if there are a few days between tournaments.

When he played Marseille, he was even able to drive there.

But home is still home. Auger-Aliassime thought he’d get home more.

Instead, his family goes to see him.

So, a week in the familiar did him a lot of good.

“I had obligations, but also personal things that I wanted to do either with friends or just being with my family – having dinner with my grandma, things like this,” he said. “Also, I was training in the morning at the national centre. But it was so good to be back in Montreal and to see some of the people I don’t see often.”

Auger-Aliassime, the No. 9 seed, arrives in the California desert to play the BNP Paribas Open for the fourth time.

It’s where he qualified for his first career Masters 1000 tournament four years ago, when he was just 17. He then defeated countryman Vasek Pospisil in the first round of the main draw before Milos Raonic defeated him in the second round.

This year, as a tournament winner and a top-10 player, he comes in with a very different mindset.

After a first-round bye, he’ll open play Sunday against either Botic Van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands or American qualifier Tennys Sandgren.

“I still know that in order to win I need to play well. The key points of my game – my serve, my forehand precision, my movement – all of that needs to be in place,” Auger-Aliassime said.

“But here at Indian Wells, for example, I come with very different ambitions than three years ago, or two years ago. I’m one of those top-10 players now. I’m one of those players who should be going further in the tournament even if there are going to be tough matches even from the first match.

“But within me, I think the difference is that I come in with more composure, and more inner belief and confidence,” he added.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2022.

Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press

Tennis