February 19, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

Big debut turns scary as Auger-Aliassime retires

NEW YORK – Decades from now, as Denis Shapovalov and Félix Auger-Aliassime sit back in their rocking chairs and watch the grandkids frolic in the lake up at the cottage, they’ll remember the very first time they met on one of tennis’s biggest stages.

They might recall that Shapovalov won the match.

Maybe.

But above all, they’ll both remember a highly anticipated first chapter in Canadian tennis turning into something else: a show of brotherhood between two kids who couldn’t be more different.

Auger-Aliassime, in his Grand Slam debut, had just taken the second set from his good friend in their first-round match at the US Open.

But something wasn’t right.

He couldn’t get his heart rate down. And what was turning into a marathon on an unbearably humid night morphed into a frightening scene.

scary

After a visit from the tournament doctor, Auger-Aliassime tried to carry on.

But down 1-4, clutching at his chest, he had a few words with his team and family, and retired.

As he walked towards Shapovalov, whom he’s known almost since he held a racket in his hand, he couldn’t hold back the tears.

And when the devastated 18-year-old reached out for a hug, his “big brother” was right there.

Shapovalov wrapped his arms around him for as long as he needed it, ruffling his hair as big brothers do, trying to offer what comfort he could.

They were extraordinary scenes.

Auger-Aliassime’s big sister, Malika, had tears in her eyes. So did some fans in the crowd. 

scary

All of the joy of three wins in qualifying last week, all the work over the summer – over years – that led to this big moment on the Grandstand at the National Tennis Center – and it ended like this.

Heat, humidity, stress, fatigue … even a full moon

Auger-Aliassime’s heart issue isn’t a secret. Nor has it been particularly well-documented.

The family and those close to him have played down the tachycardia he has been managing since he was a kid and which, it is felt, he would eventually outgrow.

Auger-Aliassime doesn’t take any medication for it. And of late, according to what his mother Marie Auger told tennis.life a few weeks in Toronto, everything had been absolutely fine.

Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime, along with coaches Guillaume Marx and Adriano Fuorivia, arrive at the US Open three years ago to play the juniors. They ended up winning the doubles together.

The tachycardia issue first came to public attention when Auger-Aliassime retired in the third set of his first round match at a $100,000 Challenger in Le Gosier, Guadeloupe in April, 2016.

Mina said in an interview after that match that he, too, was struggling with the extreme humidity during the match, and was having trouble catching his breath.

Auger-Aliassime was still just 15 then. Five months later, he won the US Open juniors despite suffering from several nosebleeds during the event – one of which took an extended period of time to stanch. It happened again during his match against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis.

Whether or not the humidity is a common thread will be up to the medical professionals. But one thing’s for sure, Monday’s match came at the end of a long, hot summer during which Auger-Aliassime hunkered down on the clay courts of Europe to get match wins and raise his ranking.

Long, hot, stressful summer

Auger-Aliassime is just two weeks removed from another emotional debut – his singles main-draw debut at his home-country event, the Rogers Cup. There, he upset top-20 player Lucas Pouille in the first round before losing a tough one in a third-set tiebreak to Daniil Medvedev.

After a quick trip to the Vancouver Challenger, Auger-Aliassime headed right to New York and found himself in more unfamiliar territory. He played three players who were ranked lower than he was – whom he was expected to beat.

That’s a new kind of pressure for him, one he likely hadn’t felt since the juniors. He handled it beautifully, but it was an add-on.

The culmination of all that was having to face his great friend Shapovalov. And – no small thing – play the first best-of-five set match of his career.

Factor in the stress of trying to treat it like just another match, the big stadium, his first grown-up Grand Slam and the stress of competition. Add to that the unbearable conditions that felled more than one player on Monday.

The result was tough to watch.

Uneven tennis

Auger-Aliassime was up in the first set (even served for it) and lost it. Shapovalov was up in the second set – and lost that one. 

It was fairly evident that in the early going, both were tight as could be. Shapovalov even alluded to it later on.

There were at least three breaks of serve on double faults. There was an abject lack of first serves. And there were plenty of errors.

The two did, however, get a lot of air.

The tennis got better in the second set. But still, the moments when both played well at the same time were rare. There wasn’t more than a handful of points where both played their best. When they did, it was spellbinding. It just hardly happened.

But it offered so much promise for the future – not just for Canadian tennis, but for tennis.

Both players spent significant time looking over and talking to their supporters – coaches, managers, parents.

What’s next

After being seen by the tournament doctor, Auger-Aliassime came out and talked briefly about why he had to retire from the match, in both English and French.

Mercifully, he looked okay.

Shapovalov now moves on to the second round, where he will meet veteran Andreas Seppi of Italy.

Auger-Aliassime and his team will have to follow up on Monday night’s scare, and figure out how they can address it.

Because there will be more hot, humid conditions, more top-level tournaments, and more stressful moments in Auger-Aliassime’s career.

He’s in the big leagues now. 

On the plus side, even if it will always be difficult when they play each other, he’ll have a brother by his side.

(Screenshots from TSN)

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