TOKYO—From the glamour of the French Riviera to his humble digs at the Olympic athletes village. Four roommates in his residential pod — a rower, a gymnast and a pair of swimmers. But there is nowhere else Félix Auger-Aliassime would rather be.
“It feels like living in a university dorm. Which is cool, because I never got to go to university.”
The 20-year-old from Montreal — he’ll turn 21 on the final day of the Tokyo Games — has set aside the glitzy touring life of the elite tennis vagabond for a fortnight as an Olympian. He got here Sunday after a brief stop at his home base in Monaco, following a splashy quarterfinals appearance at Wimbledon, his best acquittal at a Grand Slam and a career breakthrough.
Quite a few tennis luminaries have given Tokyo a pass, citing pandemic leeriness, unendurable protocol restrictions — Serena Williams won’t go anywhere without her tot daughter — exhaustion at the midpoint of their competitive season and injuries needing rehab before the circuit swings from clay and grass in Europe to hard courts in North America.
Roger Federer, suddenly confronted by GOAT mortality, the realities of middle-age corporeal breakdown, has reluctantly withdrawn. Rafael Nadal said no gracias. Nick Kyrgios said uh-uh mate, had no interest playing in an empty stadium, although he managed to overcome that aversion through limited capacity rounds at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Even an audience of one would provide a foil for the incendiary Aussie.
No such hesitancy for Auger-Aliassime.
“I understand their situation,” he says of those who have dropped out of Tokyo, among them good friend Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu. “For tennis players it’s tough.”
The grinding tournament schedule can’t easily accommodate an Olympic gig. Yet he gave no thought to sending his regrets. As he wrote the other day on his Instagram account, under a photo of himself as a racquet-wielding youngster: “It is with a lot of pride that this kid, who once could only dream of it, is today on his way to Tokyo. Proof that some dreams become a reality. I hope that this will inspire many others to believe and never let go of their dreams.
“I can’t promise you wins but I can promise you to represent my country with passion, strength and honour.”
To a Canadian reporter, on Tuesday: “I always thought that it is important for me to represent my country as a sportsman. It’s a privilege and something I would never want to miss. When you country calls upon you, I want to show up.”
Adding, once the patriotic preamble, however sincere, is out of the way: “I want to try to get a medal. Or two.”
Singles and mixed doubles. That’s the competitive spirit of the thing. Kick some Olympic ass, man.
Double-A is down one doubles partner, with Vasek Pospisil withdrawing, citing a right shoulder issue he’s loathe to aggravate and “other factors.” But he’s up one mixed doubles partner in Gaby Dabrowski, twice a major titlist in that category and a veteran of the Rio Olympics.
“It’ll be awesome to play with Gaby. She has the experience. I’ve actually never played mixed doubles before. It’s still early in my career and we don’t often get the chance, except at Slams.”
In fact, The Associated Press’s Olympic predictions have tagged Auger-Aliassime and Dabrowski as good for gold in Tokyo, a forecast of which he’d been unaware.
“Well, that’s great to hear. But there’s a lot to do before we get there.”
Only Daniel Nestor and partner Sébastien Lareau have ever mined precious metal for Canada at the Olympics — gold at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Such a whirlwind month it has been for Auger-Aliassime as he carved a name for himself on tour, beating Federer at the Halle Open despite losing the first set — he called it the most memorable day of his life — finishing runner-up at Stuttgart, then ousting fourth seed Alexander Zverev in five sets at Wimbledon to reach the quarters, where Italian Matteo Berrettini prevailed.
“Honestly, beating Zverev, that was an amazing week for me,” says Auger-Aliassime, of the success at SW19 that lifted him to a world ranking of No. 15. “Tight matches, quality tennis. Now I want to take it a step further.”
Auger-Aliassime has had less than two weeks to come back down to Earth. “I came back down rapidly afterwards, actually. I was so tired, I just went home. Didn’t even want to think about tennis for a little while.”
The game face is back in place now, even as he’s struggling with jet lag and adjusting to the oddities of the village bubble existence, albeit well-versed at this point with daily saliva testing and pandemic mindfulness. “I don’t mind shared accommodation, it’s part of the Olympic experience. I’m loving it, meeting athletes from different sports because I never get to see athletes outside of tennis. Mostly I’ve been relaxing, walking around the village, just getting back into training. Even with COVID, there’s a lot to do here, fun things that fill up the day.”
While Auger-Aliassime may cross paths with some Olympic glamazons, sit nearby in the plexiglass-partitioned dining hall — everybody in their own cubicle with masks removed — he can’t ask for autographs. It’s forbidden under pandemic protocols. Also at these Games, sadly, is the no-go stipulation that prevents participants from attending other events, as spectators. Auger-Aliassime had been hopeful of catching a couple of basketball games, as a fan. He’s never been to an NBA game or a pro game in Europe, just endlessly on the tennis shuttle these past couple of years.
Unlike just about every athlete here, however, Auger-Aliassime has a parent in tow. Dad Sam has somehow averted the admonition against families attending these Games. We won’t dig too deeply into how that was accomplished; it is all perfectly legit. “He’s not at the village, obviously, he’s staying at a hotel. But he’ll be at all my matches.’’
While the Olympics is a novel experience and his career is ascendant, Auger-Aliassime isn’t a tennis newbie anymore. He is no longer the lanky teenage naïf out of Montreal, if preternaturally self-possessed, rarely rattled. By innate nature, a tall cool glass of water.
“I feel more poised than I did even a year ago, even though I’ve always been calm, that’s just how I am. But more mature as a person, you know? And my game, I have more tools now, much more precise in my head.
“All these things are coming together and I’m finding my way.”
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