On Saturday, Felix Auger-Aliassime's 16-match win streak ended at the hands of Holger Rune in the semifinals of the Paris Master's. It was an exceptional run that included winning 3 titles, beating the world No. 1, and qualifying for the Nitto ATP Finals.
All the more interesting is the fact that it came in a year where Auger-Aliassime had multiple periods of disappointing losses and early exits. His 2022 started well, with a win for Team Canada at the ATP Cup, a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open (where he held a match point against Daniil Medvedev), and his first ATP title in Rotterdam. But later in the year, he struggled — at times barely batting above .500, at others narrowly avoiding upsets against much lower-ranked players. Combined with the pressure he has faced over the years as an up-and-coming young star, it seemed possible that Auger-Aliassime might not live up to the expectations placed on him by the rest of the tennis world.
In the past few years, much has been said on the topic of grit — what Angela Duckworth defines as “passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement.” I like to think of it as perseverance in spite of adversity — as Duckworth says, "holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow" — and it's strongly linked to long-term success in many facets of life. In tennis, given the fact that most players lose a lot (on the ATP tour, only about 60 players win more than they lose; in any given tournament, everyone loses except for one person), and that there is even more that is out of our control (opponent, weather, surface, draw, etc.), it seems fair to assume that grit would also correlate with success on the court.
Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to take a retrospective look at Felix’s year up till now and align his results with his interviews to get a better insight into his thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. In doing so, I identified a few recurring themes. They were:
Embracing challenge (growth mindset)
Looking for positives
Controlling what you can control, and accepting what you can't
Recognizing that success is not linear — there will be ups and downs
A desire to continuously improve
I'll cheat a little bit and start just before the season began, in November of 2021, when Auger-Aliassime broke into the top 10 for the first time. His interview on the ATP Tour website gives an insight into themes 3 and 4, above:
"It's always good to check off goals on my bucket list as a young player. Of course, the Top 100 for the first time, then I got rapidly into the Top 20. For me, it was kind of like, 'When will the Top 10 come? Sometimes it goes fast, other times it takes longer than you think."
"It was not always easy at different stages of my young career. I've had to talk to my team and to myself and see how I [would] deal with this. But at the end of the day, it has always come back to what is important in the day-to-day, focusing on the present and I think I've been able to follow my path. I have kept it in my own rhythm. Sometimes it went faster than I thought, sometimes things took a little bit longer, but in the end good things happen I guess when you follow your plan and do good work. It's good proof that hard work can pay off."
He also engaged in a sit-down conversation with Jennifer Brady where he stated, "It's a really gratifying thing when you feel like — OK, it sucks when you lose, but when you win and you felt like you found your own ways and you found a way to dig deep and find solutions it's always really gratifying."
A strong start
Auger-Aliassime started the year off well, winning the ATP Cup as captain of the Canadian team. He lost in disappointing fashion to Medvedev, dropping the last 9 games of the match, but rebounded well to beat Bautista Agut in the finals.
At the Australian Open, Auger-Aliassime's big result came in the quarterfinals, where he had a two-set lead and a match point against then world No. 2 Medvedev before ultimately losing in 5 sets. But the path there wasn't easy — in the first round, he was down 2 sets to 1 to Ruusuvuori before coming back to win in 5. In the second round, he had to battle through four consecutive tiebreakers to beat Davidovich Fokina in over four hours. And in the round of 16, he dropped the first set to Cilic 6-2 before coming back to take it.
Throughout, however, there was evidence of the mindsets I described above. His first round statements show how he finds positives and accepts what he is given:
"I’m never a person to be satisfied. I always want to be better. But I’m happy with my progress. I think just year after year I’ve just become a better player, a better person also. When I say that I mean mentally on the court. I think matches, like today, two years ago, would have probably went out in three, four sets. Today I was able to win in five. So I think that shows my progress that I’ve made as a person mentally on the court. But of course, I mean I wish I had won a lot of titles. I wish I was even higher always. But it’s the reality. Also at the same time it’s like this career is also accepting what you have and working to get more."
After the second round, when asked how he prepares for big matches, he described controlling what he can: “I’ll rest well, eat well. I mean, I’m pretty disciplined about this stuff. The Grand Slam is a tough tournament, a long tournament, physically and mentally draining, so I try to put all the things on my side to be rested and prepared for every match.”
Heading into the round of 16, he was set to face either Rublev or Cilic, neither of whom he had ever beaten before. His response to this news? A great example of embracing challenge: “Either way it’s going to be a great opportunity for me to test myself and see where my game is at.”
After what was ultimately a heartbreaking loss to Medvedev, Auger-Aliassime still found positives and demonstrated his belief that he has to accept what he cannot control:
“At the end of the day, I can’t regret the effort that I put, and the chances I gave myself. I like to look at it in a positive way”
“Of course I would have loved to win. I love to win every time. It sucks to lose in the end, but that’s life. I just need to accept it.”
“I wish I could go back and change it, but I can’t. So I have accepted it already. It is what it is. I look at it in a very positive way. So far I played two tournaments this year. I showed some good level again today.”
His good form continued into Rotterdam, where he won his first ATP title. Heading into the final match, holding a 0-8 record in tour finals and facing a great deal of pressure, he said this: “[For] my part I just need to play with no regrets, bring my best intensity and focus, give it my all and we’ll see what the outcome is, but I’m confident I can pull this through.” His focus on the process worked, and he took home the trophy, beating world No. 4 Tsitsipas and making the final of the following week’s tournament in Marseille.
A dip in performance
Over the next few months, Auger-Aliassime began to struggle, relatively speaking. He lost to numerous opponents ranked lower than him and had difficulty winning matches convincingly. At Indian Wells, he lost his first match to van de Zandschulp, ranked 47th. In Miami, he also went without a win, losing in straight sets to Kecmanovic, ranked 48th. In Marrakech, he lost in the second round to Molcan, ranked 65th. And in Monte Carlo, it was Musetti who took him out in two sets, then ranked 83rd.
Auger-Aliassime didn't deny that he was frustrated or disappointed, but he made it clear that his focus was on continuing to improve:
“I need to find a way at some point to serve better. […] I have to figure out, especially here, why I can’t serve the way I serve throughout the year in Australia and other tournaments. I just need to see how to do better here.”
“Given my ambitions and what I want to achieve in the tournaments, I have to do better than today.”
“I still need to improve on many things. I will try to become a better tennis player first, and we’ll see.”
He also discussed the up-and-down nature of the sport:
“Those moments where it doesn’t go so well are always difficult. It’s difficult to lose first round and having to practice again. This is the most difficult part of our sport. We lose very often. It’s complicated.”
“[Over] the years, some players will stand out. This will depend on their capacity to be consistent over the years and to be resilient. Sometimes there are difficult moments; other times it goes better. So those who will be able to bounce back will be the best ones.”
Clay court season
Over the next few weeks, he played roughly to his ranking — beating the players ranked below him, losing to the players ranked above him. In Barcelona and Estoril, he lost in the quarterfinals to Schwartzman and Korda, respectively, while in Madrid and Rome he bowed out to Zverev and Djokovic. At the French, he survived a difficult first round match, winning 2-6 2-6 6-1 6-3 6-3, and made it to the 4th round where he lost to the eventual champion, Nadal, in 5 sets.
After his first round, when asked what he drew upon to come back from two sets to love down, he highlighted controlling what he could control:
“Well, I always focus on the game, you know, rather than the score, which is kind of something you don’t really control or it’s kind of external. You know, I think I focus on, Okay, why am I down two sets to love? Because I’m playing this way or because I’m not putting enough returns, not serving well enough. Then I try to change that. Then little by little, you know, you start feeling more comfortable and you start seeing a few openings.”
He also demonstrated his self-belief, his ability to find the positives, and his intention to keep improving:
“I don’t think also at any point I lost belief, because I know how I can play, I know what my level is, and I knew that if I hung in there and if I tried to find a way to change things around, I would get my opportunity."
“That’s what I always try and do, that’s something I have to work on and improve. Well, first I have to control my emotions better and better and control my thoughts. I want them to be optimistic and positive. I want to really focus on the game and look at the things I have to improve or improve the score. That’s something I have worked on. I always try and do this when I hit balls and during the matches and so on. Now I feel that it's going to be a question of habit. It Is a habit. I don’t need to repeat that. I want to remain calm and positive regardless of the tournament and focus on the solutions. It was the case today. It paid off. It really shows I have improved versus last year, for instance.”
After his loss to Nadal, we saw evidence of the same desire to get better:
“Well, it’s always, I think, a constant work of progress trying to be a better player all the time. I know I have great shots, but they can be always more, more precise, more powerful, and more consistent.”
“I’m proud of the effort I produced, the game I played, and like most of my matches I try to leave the match without any regrets. I tried things, I changed my tactics, my position and I think I tried everything with regard to what I did today. I think my serve is very good, but there are things in my game that I can improve to be more comfortable in certain moments or maybe win not just by the skin of my teeth, you have to have a comfortable win. So there are things that I can improve, but I’m proud and I have no regrets.”
He also demonstrated how he embraces challenges:
“[It’s] good to spend time in these matches on these courts and battle four hours, test yourself mentally, physically, and at the end, that’s how you learn. You just try to put yourself in these difficult situations and try to find a way.”
Grass court season
The grass court season did not bear much fruit. At 's-Hertogenbosch, Auger-Aliassime lost in the semis to van Rijthoven, the surprise winner. In Halle, he lost to Hurkacz in the quarters. At Wimbledon, he lost in the first round to Cressy, ranked 48th, and in Newport, to Kubler, ranked 102.
In the face of these disappointing results, Auger-Aliassime highlighted his desire to find the positives, accept what he cannot change, and continue to improve:
“I had pretty negative thoughts at the end of that second set. […] I just had to change my thoughts, trick my mind a little bit and think, OK, there is a third set to play, I haven’t lost yet and I am still on the court, so let’s try to think positive.”
“Yeah, it’s very disappointing, that’s for sure. But, you know, I just need to face the reality. The reality is I lost today, and there is nothing I can do anymore, even though of course I had higher ambitions for this tournament.”
“But in order to one day win, you know, a tournament like this, I need to be able to beat players like today and many different players along the way. Yeah, just need to see what, yeah, what I can still improve to become better.”
Hard court season
At this point, it had been over 3 months since Auger-Aliassime had won 3 matches in a row, and even longer since he had beaten someone ranked higher than him. He headed to Los Cabos, where he lost a close 3 set match to Norrie in the semis.
He then headed to his native Montreal, Canada, where after his first round win, he demonstrated again the emphasis he puts on controlling what he can control:
“It’s a very good performance on my part from the aspects of the game that I was in control with, especially on my serve games. It doesn’t happen all the time, so I’m enjoying it.”
“After, yeah, I think I had the right ideas. I was coming in with the right mindset, the right tactics. Just was not executing as well as I could in that first set.”
“I had good ideas, good intentions. My execution was not so good.”
When asked how he was preparing for a rematch against Norrie, he showed his growth mindset:
“With confidence, optimism always, with a positive mindset. We have history. But that’s behind us. There’s no need to think about that too much. I just go in with a lot of belief. At the end of the day, I did lose last week, but I think it’s just good we played last week, period. Some good things worked. I’m going to try to do that as much as I can and try to repeat the things that worked well last week, and the outcome can be on my side tomorrow.”
His hometown run ended disappointingly, with a 1-6 2-6 defeat at the hands of Ruud. But even then, he acknowledged his desire to improve, the necessity to accept those things he can't control, and the up-and-down nature of the journey:
“But, yeah, have to see why and how I can be more consistent, think about the right things, adjust quickly so that it doesn’t take me, like it took me, I don’t know, four or five service games before winning my first one late in the second set. That’s not good enough. [I] have to see why this happens.”
“Well, the important thing for me is to understand what happened and try to act on it after I try to move on. I’m not someone who falls into emotions or doubts or wonders. Tennis is a sport, many things happen: sometimes good things, sometimes not as good. The important thing is to keep going. Even when you win it’s important to see what you can improve. I’ve been doing that for my whole career, so this is not new. In a few hours from now, once I will have digested this loss, I will try to look at the future.”
“But this is reality and I have to live with it.”
In Cincinnati, he lost in the quarters to eventual champion Borna Coric. But in the round of 16, he was down a set and two match points to Sinner before managing to win the second in a tiebreaker and close out the third.
After the match, he said, among other things: “That game he broke me in the second, returning on the baseline for three returns in a row, you can’t do much better, so I had to give it to him.”
He also continued to focus on the process and find positives despite a tough match:
“I was still on the court trying to find ways, trying to fight and trying to see how I could make him miss a few more balls and to put myself in a competing position and I did that well. […] To come back and play that way in the tie-break and the third set, that means a lot to me going forward.”
At the last Slam of the year, in New York, Auger-Aliassime bowed out early in the second round to Draper, ranked 53rd. In the first round, he had to fight to take out Ritschard, 186 in the world, in four sets.
Afterwards, though, he showed his willingness to embrace challenges, stating:
“For sure it's better to win in three sets, both physically and mentally to feel like you're in control of everything and you win in three sets. That being said, losing a set, finding a way to win the fourth set, it could be good because these are things that are going to happen in the tournament against tougher players. To be in that situation in the first round, to dig a little bit deeper, to find different solutions, to lose and then be able to recover and play well again, this is a situation that happens a lot in many tournaments. So that it happened today, now I have a few marks that are better for the rest of the tournament.”
While this mindset may not have helped him achieve success at this year's US Open, it may have helped set him up for future success, because it wasn't long before he started to come into form.
The turn around
Auger-Aliassime travelled to Spain to play Davis Cup, and after losing to Kwon, ranked 74th, he took down Kecmanovic, 33rd, and world No. 1 Alcaraz. Beating the top player in the world (a recent Slam champion, no less) is always special — but it seems even more noteworthy when contrasted with the challenging season Auger-Aliassime was having. It would have been easy to write the year off as a failure and throw in the towel, but that would have deprived him of this win as well as those that were soon to come.
He then made it to the Laver Cup, where he lost to Berrettini but beat Djokovic, recording a remarkable 39 winners to 16 unforced errors and winning 81% of his first serve points and 68% of his return of second serve points. In Astana, he lost a closely contested match to Bautista Agut, 4-6 6-7, in what would be his last loss for over a month.
The rest of the story is fresh in our minds — 16 matches in a row, winning the title in Florence, then Antwerp, and then Basel, before making the semis of Paris. Up until this point, he hadn't won more than two matches in a row since Roland Garros, in May. But now he was, for a moment, the best player on the planet. He had quadrupled the number of titles to his name, reached a career-high ranking of No. 6, and qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time in his career.
To top it all off, after his loss to Rune, Auger-Aliassime stayed true to form:
“It would be great to win. [But] throughout my career, I have always tried to draw lessons from my failures. As I said recently during the US Open, I lost early, it was disappointing, but I managed to overturn this into something positive."
“It's something that was good that ended. From tomorrow onwards, I will focus my attention on Turin.”
“I heard Novak saying yesterday that you can always improve and he’s won how many Grand Slams, so I can definitely improve a lot more in future. Of course right now I’m playing well and feeling good, but I see things that I can still do better and still improve on to be able to top the game.”
Of course, we don't know what the next months or years will look like for Felix Auger-Aliassime. It's possible that this is only the beginning, but this could also be as good as it gets. What we do know is that he has faced his fair share of adversity, both from the pressure of expectations and the disappointment of poor results. In situations like these, it's not enough to keep going — one must do so with quality. Some players might let their habits slip — focus on the wrong things, drop their effort or intensity, make excuses. But if Auger-Aliassime's statements are anything to go by, that's not what he did. He persevered, as Duckworth described, with passion, focus, and intensity; controlling what he could, accepting what he couldn't, and finding the positives — recognizing that success isn't linear, but embracing the challenge nonetheless.