Canadian teenager Félix Auger-Aliassime skipped his opportunity to try to qualify at the Australian Open last month.
He had sustained a knee injury in the off-season, likely during the tough two-week training block he did with Roger Federer in Dubai in December.
So his 2018 debut came Tuesday, at the Hungarian Challenger in Budapest.
And after a bit of a slow start, the 17-year-old prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 6-1 over Blaz Rola, an experienced Slovene 10 years his senior.
Rola is currently ranked No. 198 – 31 spots lower than Auger-Aliassime. But he spent plenty of time in the top 100 in 2014 and 2015, shortly after turning pro at age 22 after a standout college career at Ohio State.
The left-hander was an NCAA doubles champion in 2012, and the NCAA singles champion the following year, where he defeated Jarmere Jenkins (now Serena Williams’ hitting partner) in the final.
But as Rola was spending a lot more time at the ATP Tour level, it seems he found the jump in level challenging. That’s something that happens to a lot of players who get their rankings up there on the Challenger level, but find the competition at the top level tough from the very first round.
On Tuesday, as Auger-Aliassime got his aggressive, forward-thinking game sorted, Rola was the one who went down in a blaze of unforced errors.
Rotterdam wild card up next
It was Auger-Aliassime’s first official match since early November. Wisely, those around him didn’t have him hanging out with the Davis Cup team – which was in Osijek Croatia, just a few hours’ drive away – last week to be a hitting partner, or just part of the entourage for the competition he no doubt will headline in a few years. That it was on red clay no doubt factored into that decision.
Instead, he focused on this debut, on a fast hard court.
Auger-Aliassime had 15 aces and an impressive success rate with both his first and second serves. He was broken twice in the first set when he got just 41 per cent of his first deliveries in – at the beginning, and the end. But he didn’t face a single break point the rest of the way. He served at a 78 per cent rate in the second set, and at 75 per cent in the decider.
Doubles up next
Auger-Aliassime’s second-round opponent will be either Kamil Majchrzak, a 22-year-old ranked No. 214, or qualifier Constant Lestienne, a 25-year-old Frenchman ranked No. 332. They will play on Wednesday.
The Canadian has doubles on Wednesday with Nicola Kuhn of Spain, another 17-year-old.
After this event, Auger-Aliassime has a wild card into the singles draw at the ATP Tour 500 event in Rotterdam.
It will be the highest-level match of his career, so far. And the field is impressive.
Despite all the attention and hopes for his future, Auger-Aliassime, has taken it gradually. He played one match in the qualifying at the Rogers Cup in 2016, when he was just turning 16. And he played another qualifying match at the Basel event in Switzerland last fall, losing to a man twice his age in Julien Benneteau.
He would have played in the Rogers Cup in Montreal last August in his hometown of Montreal. But a wrist injury cost him most of the summer; he ended up returning in the qualifying at the US Open in late August.
(Photos from the Hungarian Challenger’s Facebook page. For more pics of Auger-Aliassime and the other players, click here).