There has never been a question about Felix Auger-Aliassime’s talent. But that won’t be all that is put to the test on Sunday at the Australian Open when the #NextGenATP Canadian plays Aslan Karatsev for a spot in his first Grand Slam quarter-final.
Will the 20-year-old be able to play his best tennis?
Last Sunday, Auger-Aliassime suffered a crushing loss in the final of the Murray River Open. The #NextGenATP Canadian played his seventh ATP Tour final, and for the seventh time he failed to win a set with hardware on the line. On this occasion, Felix won just five games against Daniel Evans, who is ranked lower than him. The Canadian made 32 unforced errors, averaging nearly two per game.
But Auger-Aliassime quickly recovered mentally and physically for the start of the Australian Open the next day. A week later, it’s like that match never happened.
Auger-Aliassime has been in command during the season’s first major, advancing to the fourth round at a Grand Slam for the second time. The 20th seed, who hasn’t lost a set, beat close friend and 11th seed Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 7-5, 6-3 on Friday to reach the Round of 16. He struck only 29 unforced errors, averaging less than one per game.
“To come through in three sets like that, it means a lot,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It's good for my level, my confidence, and hopefully I can build on from this.”
Felix will try to find his top level against World No. 114 Karatsev in one of the biggest matches of his life. Before he played Evans in the Murray River Open final, a reporter asked if there’s a risk of wanting it too much in the big moments.
“I think you need to want it quite a lot. I think when I want it a lot, I'm going to bring my best focus on every point,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I’m going to try to be steady in what I do, to be focussed from the start. But no, I don't see wanting it too much as a worry, to be honest.”
According to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, the former World No. 4, Auger-Aliassime will have to keep things simple to avoid turning his own game into his toughest opponent.
“You focus on tactics, Xs and Os. Watch some videos of the guy playing and understand what he does well and what you can take advantage of. [You have to think that] it’s not the Round of 16. It’s one match, one opponent,” Gilbert said. “That’s why you don’t think [about how] this is your first opportunity to get to the quarters. Nope. Just think about their strengths and weaknesses.”
In Felix’s first appearance in the fourth round of a major at last year’s US Open, he made 51 unforced errors in a straight-sets defeat against Dominic Thiem, who won the tournament.
“When he seems like he’s a little bit tight about something — like all of a sudden when he played Thiem in the Round of 16 at the US Open — he just starts missing everything,” Gilbert said. “That’s what’s happened in these seven ATP finals because it’s unexplainable that he can’t win a set.”
This time, Auger-Aliassime will be the favourite against Karatsev, who is competing in his first Grand Slam main draw. Entering the week, the big-hitting Russian owned just three tour-level wins. But he looked like a Top 20 player in dismissing eighth seed Diego Schwartzman in straight sets in the third round.
“From my perspective he's not a Russian qualifier now. He's a Russian playing in the Round of 16. It's a tough task,” Auger-Aliassime said. “No matches are easy. We saw what he was able to do against Diego, who is a great player and a tough opponent to beat.
“I’ve played him before. I know how good he's able to play. I’m going to be ready to face the challenge, ready to compete, and of course try my best to go through to next round.”
Auger-Aliassime has played nearly flawless tennis through three rounds at Melbourne Park. Will he be able to bring his best once more to reach the last eight?
“To be great, when the stakes get higher, it’s all about being able to use your game,” Gilbert said. “The circumstances usually mean you elevate [your level].”