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Auger-Aliassime looks to translate clay-court form into elusive French Open success

PARIS — Top-ranked Canadian player Félix Auger-Aliassime isn’t exactly cursed at the French Open. But he is still seeking his first career main-draw match win in Paris.
Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada returns the ball to Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their match at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Friday, May 13, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Andrew Medichini

PARIS — Top-ranked Canadian player Félix Auger-Aliassime isn’t exactly cursed at the French Open. 

But he is still seeking his first career main-draw match win in Paris. 

The 21-year-old has crisscrossed Europe the last six weeks trying to find his clay-court form. Now that he has arrived in Paris, here’s hoping the fifth time is the charm. 

It’s not as though Auger-Aliassime can’t play on clay. 

His first ATP Tour final, a 500-level event in Rio de Janeiro when he was just 18, was on the surface. He has several Challenger clay-court titles and, back in 2016, he reached the French Open boys’ singles final. 

But for all his deep runs at the other three Grand Slam tournaments, it has yet to happen at Roland Garros. 

“Twice I lost in the first round, as has happened in other tournaments. In those, I was able to win that first match and things unlocked, so it’s nothing about this particular tournament,” Auger-Aliassime said Friday. 

He’ll play his first-round match against qualifier Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru on Sunday, as the French Open begins a day earlier than the other majors. 

The Canadian found himself draw into the “quarter of death” that contains both defending champion Novak Djokovic and 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. 

If both can get there, Nadal would be Auger-Aliassime’s fourth-round opponent. 

At 26, Varillas is five years older than Auger-Aliassime. But the South American clay-courter, whose career-high ranking of No. 104 came a few weeks ago, will be playing in his first career French Open main draw. 

The two have met before.

A few weeks before that junior French Open final, 15-year-old Auger-Aliassime (then No. 712 in the ATP Tour rankings) met 21-year-old Varillas (then ranked No. 665) in the first round of a low-level Futures tournament in Spain with $10,000 in total prize money.

Auger-Aliassime had just made the final of a similar event the previous week in only his eighth professional-level tournament. 

He beat Parillas 6-3, 6-1. 

It took just two years for Auger-Aliassime to graduate from the junior final to the men’s single qualifying in 2018. But he didn’t have a great day in the second round against Jaume Munar of Spain, who produced some superb tennis. 

In 2019, he played a tune-up event in Lyon, France the week before Paris. 

Auger-Aliassime reached the final. But along the way he strained his adductor. He limped through that final against France’s Benoit Paire and made his way to Paris. But he was forced to pull out of his first appearance in the French Open main draw.  

Auger-Aliassime would have been seeded, as well. 

In 2020, the tournament was held in October after the pandemic cancelled the usual late May-early June slot. And Auger-Aliassime finally made his main-draw debut, as the No. 19 seed. 

He went out in straight sets to Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan in the first round. 

Flash forward eight months to May, 2021. Once again, Auger-Aliassime played poorly in a four-set, first-round loss to Italian veteran Andreas Seppi.  

Seppi was 37 at the time. 

“Luck didn’t smile on me in previous years. And the level I produced wasn’t enough the two previous times,” Auger-Aliassime said. “But I improve from year to year. I arrive here a better player, so I can dare to hope I’ll play better here than in previous years.” 

The 2022 season has been one of highs and lows for Auger-Aliassime, who remains in the top 10. 

The Australian tour to start the year was a success. He then won his first career ATP Tour title — in his ninth final — in Rotterdam in February and followed it up the next week with a final in Marseille, France. 

But the American “Sunshine Swing” was in disaster — opening-match losses to No. 47 Botic Van de Zandschulp at Indian Wells and to No. 48 Miomir Kecmanovic at the Miami Open. 

Short on matches, Auger-Aliassime filled out a clay-court season that had contained four planned events and made it six. He took wild cards into a small event the week after Miami in Marrakech, Morocco and also in Barcelona. 

The Canadian posted a few wins, and some surprising loses. 

It was only at the Masters 1000 in Madrid that it felt as though things were beginning to click. 

Auger-Aliassime beat No. 12 Jannik Sinner in Madrid on the way to the quarterfinals. 

In Rome the following week, he was down and out his opening match against one of the in-form clay-court players this spring in Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.  His lower back even required medical treatment on court. 

But the Canadian grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat and went on to the quarterfinals.

There, he had his first career meeting with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He lost 7-5, 7-6 (1), but it was an encouraging showing. 

“It was a good match against Novak, who played well when he needed to — who was the champion he is when he needed to be,” Auger-Aliassime said. “I’m headed in the right direction; I played the way I can play. And I feel good, confident in the level I produced in the last few weeks.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.

Stephanie Myles, The Canadian Press