May 29, 2020

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Auger-Aliassime plans Monte Carlo return to start again

With the gradual opening up of tennis courts and training possibilities around Europe, Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime and his team plan to head to his base in Monte Carlo to begin preparing for the day when professional tennis gets back on court.

The 19-year-old, who has spent the lockdown at his family’s home in Montreal, plans to leave for Europe on May 10. On May 11, France’s three-phase plan to re-open the country will begin.

“After the U.S., coming back to Montreal, I already had in my head that after a month, or during May, I was going to return to Monaco,” Auger-Aliassime said Wednesday during a Zoom session with journalists. “We’re thinking that there could be some training possibilities there in May.”

The confinement rules in Monaco, where Auger-Aliassime’s apartment is located, are somewhat stricter than in France. There are 98 confirmed cases (nearly half of them on April 14 alone) and four deaths so far in the principality, among a population of some 40,000. But there, the playing of individual sports only returns in the third phase of the Monaco re-opening – not until at least early June and dependent on how the first two phases play out.

However the Monte Carlo Country Club, and another facility 10 minutes away from his apartment where Auger-Aliassime sometimes trains, are both located in France.

All systems … green in the south of France?

When things begin opening up in France, the various regions will be tagged either “red” or “green”, depending on how active the coronavirus is in that area. That designation will define how much the residents will be able to return to normalcy, and the timeline. The French area around Monaco is expected to be green; the definitive designations are to be finalized May 7.

On May 4, the French Tennis Federation will release a full set of guidelines for the restarting of tennis – at least singles tennis. It is expected to include guidelines that we’ve seen elsewhere, such as two players marking their balls differently, and only touching their own balls with the hand. It’s hard to see, this far out, how that will translate to a player, coach and basket of balls.

The Canadian has already received an invitation to take part in the tournament organized by Serena Williams coach Patrick Mouratoglou at his academy in Biot, which is about a 30-mile drive from Monte Carlo.

“That’s one of the competitions that is on the liste of the conceivable options in the weeks and months to come. If I can return to Monaco, and start training again in acceptable conditions, we’ll see what competitions I can take part in,” Auger-Aliassime said.

But first, the trip. Auger-Aliassime, who hasn’t been tested for the corona virus since his return to Canada, would have to be tested upon his arrival on French soil, he said.

Taking charge of his team

Another big change since the crisis hit is that the 19-year-old, who obviously has done well financially on and off the court despite being in the first blush of his career, now is taking over the full financial responsibility of his entire team.

It’s one of the measures Tennis Canada has had to put in, as it instituted massive layoffs and furloughs affecting some 70 per cent of its 120 full-time employees in the wake of the cancellation of the Coupe Rogers in Montreal, and the expected cancellation of the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

Generally, Tennis Canada’s support of even its few financially successful players gets phased out on the basis of age more than earnings, although reports earlier this year were that the organization was still paying for Genie Bouchard’s coach.

But both Auger-Aliassime and US Open champion Bianca Andreescu accepted to take it on now.

“Guillaume (Marx), Fred (Fontang), who are the coaches, trainer Nicholas Perrotte and (physio) Andreas Vial, who is from Chile – that doesn’t change,” he said. “Of course, eventually I was going to detach myself from Tennis Canada in the coming years (financial support-wise). It was done a little prematurely because of what’s going on.”

Auger-Aliassime expects to be joined by French coach Frédéric Fontang (seen here together practicing at Indian Wells before the cancellation) at some point in the near future. (Stephanie Myles/Open Court)

Auger-Aliassime plans to begin again with Perrotte, who is a Frenchman, eventually also returning to France. Fontang, who lives in in the southwest corner of the country, will meet him Monaco as soon as the rules allow.

After May 11, the limit for intra-France travel will remain at 100 kilometres with the exception of family reasons and professional obligations. That said, capacity on high-speed trains and flights will remain a fraction of normal for another few months (and highly concentrated out of Paris at first). So Fontang might have to hit the road for an eight-hour drive.

How the return to training will look

Auger-Aliassime has been following a training regimen, mostly in his back yard, put together with his fitness coach.

But the return to the court will be new territory for all the players. At most, a regular off-season is a month, not nearly as long as this layoff.

When asked how it will be structured, if the return to full strength could be modeled on, say, an injury layoff, Auger-Aliassime said it would be simpler.

“The structure is the tough one, because we’re in a complete uncertain situation,” he said. “But the difference is that after an injury, you have to return progressively.

“In this case, I can get right back without worrying about getting re-injured by starting again too quickly. I can take the time. I will try to structure it by phase – but maybe longer phases.”

If everything goes according to plan, Auger-Aliassime will look for competitive opportunities near his training base in Monte Carlo. (Stephanie Myles/Open Court)

Auger-Aliassime said the off-season plan might be a week on technique, a week on tactics. But the re-entry plan might spend three weeks on technique, a lot of basket work. And then after that, when the return to competition looks more imminent, more points.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty. So you have to be ready, but do it without burning out,” he said. “The danger is to train too much, without a structure, then return to competition without being fresh physically and mentally – or suffer an injury during that period, which would be a real shame.”

The Mouratoglou event begins just days after Auger-Aliassime’s return to Europe, which is soon. But he said the matches are only on the weekends, so it’s not a match load that resembles the real season.

Nor, obviously, are the same stakes and match stress you’d find on the ATP Tour or in Grand Slams likely to be in evidence for an exhibition event.

Watching video to stay connected

In addition to the physical work, Auger-Aliassime said that he’s been watching tennis, analyzing matches with his coaches.

“We do it once or twice a week, watching old matches, analyze them, talking them through with my team. Watch how I move, watch other opponents,” he said. “It’s always interesting, first of all, to keep in touch with the game at this time, and see any improvement I could do once I’m back on the court. It’s also a good way to stay connected psychologically.”

Patience is a tennis virtue

If live were normal, Auger-Aliassime would already have played his “training home” event in Monte Carlo last week, and would have been at the Masters 1000 in Madrid this week. But nothing is normal.

If there’s one quality that has marked the beginning of Auger-Aliassime’s career, it’s patience. He has always seemed to fully buy into the timeline set by his team – that a methodical and gradual plan to rise in the rankings was the way to go.

In these uncertain times, that patience is a valuable quality. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“What’s difficult is to get out of that training discipline, the habits, so when competition resumes you get back in the good habits. The tough part is really the uncertainty of the (restart) of competition,” he said. “You see the summer arriving, no tournaments. That’s a lot of months without tournaments, so I’m open to any competitions played behind closed doors or that respect the government rules.”

But he’s not worried about how it will affect his career going forward.

“When you’re missing it, you have to accept it, you can’t be in denial. My career is just beginning; I’m young, I’ll have time to catch up despite the stoppage,” he said. “I’m happy to have gotten a good start to the season; among other things, it gives me a cushion with the (ranking) points.

“I’m confident that when I return to competition, I’ll be able to continue with the same momentum I had before we stopped, continue to be competitive, and play more and more finals and maybe win my first title,” he added.

Getting into the spirit of the thing on a Zoom call with Auger-Aliassime Wednesday (caffeine mandatory)