One of Canada's most promising tennis talents hopes to pick up where he left off before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Felix Auger-Aliassime, who turned 20 earlier this month, returned to the court with a convincing 6-4, 6-1 win over Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia on Saturday in the opening round of the Western & Southern Open in New York, at the same venue where the U.S. Open will be held later this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is Auger-Aliassime's first ATP tournament since late February when he reached the round of 16 of the Mexican Open. Rust from the layoff was apparent early, as Auger-Aliassime went down a break twice in the first set. He quickly found his rhythm, however, winning 11 of the last 12 points in the opening set before dominating the second set.
Auger-Aliassime will participate in the upcoming Grand Slam and he trusts that tournament, along with other future tour stops, will be safe to play through during the pandemic. This comes after a number of men's and women's players, including Rafael Nadal and Ash Barty, pulled out of this year's U.S. Open due to coronavirus concerns.
"I always thought that if they're going to play, I'm going to come," Auger-Aliassime said.
The Montreal native is staying in his own private player suite located inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, where you can spot the venue's main court out the window. The suites originally were for distinguished royal guests, but they've since been configured for each of the seeded players at this year's U.S. Open.
Auger-Aliassime feels they're an improvement over his usual accommodations for tournaments.
"It's a really private suite for you and your team," he said.
The Montrealer is one of three Canadian men playing at the tournament. Veteran Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., opened with a 6-4, 6-4 win over American Sam Querrey on Saturday.
"I have been playing really well the last few weeks, and today I'm happy with how I dealt with a lot of things, because there is a lot of things out of my control that you can't mimic in a practice." Raonic said.
Denis Shapovalov also won, defeating Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-3.
"I don't think I could have played much better. It was a really tough draw to play Marin first round. He's such an amazing player, and he's proven that time and time again," Shapovalov said.
Auger-Aliassime anticipates a challenge in playing matches without fans. The U.S. Open announced in June it would not allow spectators. While he thinks the issue won't be that apparent on smaller courts, he feels it might be an adjustment on more prominent courts.
"When I look at the big stadiums and I practise on them, you feel like that's what it's going to look like when you play a tournament. It's a weird feeling." he said.
Prior to the restart, the 20-year old spent down time with his family back in Montreal before travelling to Monaco in May to train.
Following the U.S. Open, Auger-Aliassime says he plans on playing in Rome, Hamburg, and the rescheduled French Open in late September.
"It'll depend on my results," Auger-Aliassime said. "If I feel tired or if I've played too many tournaments in a row, maybe I'll skip one. But I'm fine to play almost every week until the end of the year."
Auger-Aliassime hopes to build on what has been a promising 2020 so far, even if it feels like it happened years ago. He has reached the final of two ATP Tour events this year, in Rotterdam and Marseille, and is ranked 20th among men's singles players.
"I feel like everything pre-COVID was a different time," Auger-Aliassime said. "Now, it's kind of a fresh page. I'm going to try to, obviously, play as good as I was playing at the start of this year and have similar results."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 22, 2020.
Julian McKenzie, The Canadian Press