Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime excited for Rogers Cup main draw debut

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada returns a ball to Viktor Galovic of Croatia during a second round game at the Swiss Open tennis tournament in Gstaad, Switzerland, 26 July 2018. EPA via CP / PETER SCHNEIDER

TORONTO – Felix Auger-Aliassime took one glance at the Rogers Cup men’s doubles draw and smiled.

The 17-year-old seemed a lot more excited than nervous about facing a former World No. 1 in the first round.

Auger-Aliassime and fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov, teaming up this week for the Rogers Cup doubles tournament, open play against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, who’s fresh off his fourth Wimbledon title, and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson – Djokovic’s opponent from that Grand Slam final.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting,” Auger-Aliassime said as another smile flashed across his face.

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“Playing a Grand Slam winner and finalist in Toronto, I think it’s going to be really fun. Doubles has a different atmosphere, you don’t have the whole pressure on yourself because you’re teaming up with a partner. But getting a chance to play Djokovic is pretty unbelievable.

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“I think I’m going to be very motivated.”

Auger-Aliassime, who figures to be the next big name in Canadian men’s tennis, will also play France’s Lucas Pouille in the first round of the men’s singles draw, which begins Monday at Toronto’s Aviva Centre.

It will be his second appearance at a Rogers Cup after he lost his first qualifying match in Toronto in 2016.

“There’s obviously nerves but I think (they are) good nerves. It’s exciting. It’s all positive,” Auger-Aliassime told The Canadian Press on Saturday. “I’m having a chance to play in a main draw here in the tournament I’ve always wanted to compete in.

“I think I’m going to put the negative nerves aside and focus on my tennis game and what I can do well to play my best tennis here.”

The Montreal native received a wild card to the 2017 Rogers Cup in his hometown, but was forced to withdraw with a wrist injury weeks before the tournament started.

Instead, it was his good friend Shapovalov _ who stayed with Auger-Aliassime over the course of the week-long event in Montreal last summer _ who rose to prominence with a stellar performance that included a second-round win over Juan Martin del Potro and a third-round victory over Rafael Nadal.

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Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., began the 2017 tournament ranked 143rd in the world and jumped to 67 the following week. The 19-year-old heads into this year’s Rogers Cup ranked 26th.

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“Obviously for Denis I was very happy for him,” Auger-Aliassime said. “It was exciting, it was great tennis, good matches, and also I had a feeling that he could do something that week because he was really playing well leading up to it. … Then he reached the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open and that was even more impressive in my eyes.

“It was disappointing not to play that week (at the Rogers Cup) because I had an opportunity to play in Montreal, my hometown, but I had to wait another year and it wasn’t a big deal. I’m here.”

The 134th-ranked Auger-Aliassime is a wild-card entry at this year’s Rogers Cup. While he’s mainly played in Challenger events – a rank below the ATP World Tour – he also has found some success in limited action against tennis’s bigger names.

He won a qualifier at the prestigious Masters 1000 Indian Wells tournament in California in March and beat Vasek Pospisil of Vancouver (ranked 75th) in the first round before losing to Milos Raonic (38) of Thornhill, Ont., in the second.

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Auger-Aliassime is heading into the Rogers Cup on back-to-back second-round appearances in ATP 250 tournaments in Switzerland and Croatia, and he successfully defended a Challenger title in June in Lyon, becoming the youngest player in ATP Challenger Tour history to win back-to-back titles at the same tournament.

The six-foot-three teen counts his Indian Wells victory and Lyon title as highlights of his season. But he’s not prepared to stop there.

“Those were cool moments for me but the season’s not over,” Auger-Aliassime said. “We’ll try to reach higher.”

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