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Felix Auger-Aliassime handles his nerves but he can’t control the expectations at Wimbledon | The Star

To wit, as expressed by an effusively flattering reporter: “Your quietude. Your grace. Your athleticism, intelligence.”

Hoo boy, that’s gaga stuff.

Yet somehow Félix Auger-Aliassime managed to keep his poise Wednesday — and refrain from tossing his cookies, if only over the rococo rhetoric — in the aftermath of his second round win at SW19.

At least the Montreal teenager wasn’t Arthur-who? stumped. He knows his tennis history, certainly as a young Black man mentioned in the same trilling breath as a Black tennis icon who has a stadium named after him at the U.S. Open.

“The comparison goes back far,” Auger-Aliassime allowed. “He’s a big model for me, but also any players. From the videos you watch and the stories you have heard about him, what I really like about these athletes or these persons in particular is just the way they impacted the sport and life in general.

“He was just a great human and he kind of changed things in a sport and in his life. He changed a lot of people’s lives. So I think that’s what I take from him. And if I could do that one day in my way, yeah, that would be great, yeah.”

Sounded totally genuine too, this son of a father from Togo and a Quebecois mom.

Also, he’s the brightest and shiniest new object at Wimbledon, instantly gathered to the media’s breast, which is always swift to christen the next huge thing, as was the case last year with Auger-Aliassime’s BFF, Denis Shapovalov, off a slam-bang rise through the ranks. As were Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. All three were knocked out on Day One of the tournament.

The tennis world is restive and impatient, waiting for a challenger of substance to dislodge The Big Three — Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal — from their championship plinths. But chroniclers of the sport, more so than a public which has exhibited no weariness with legends, fall out of love with comers as they easily as they swoon over fresh flesh.

It’s just all been such a compressed phenomenon, this coming of hotness, for Auger-Aliassime, the lanky adolescent, so reedy that it sometimes feels like he can be blown away in the whirlwind of éclat.

One might almost pity the kid, if not for the fact he seems quite mentally and emotionally grounded.

This is only Auger-Aliassime’s second Slam proper, after retiring with an elevated heart rate in the heat of Flushing Meadows last year, in the first round against Shapovalov, followed by a qualifying loss at the Australian Open and withdrawal from Roland Garros with a left adductor injury. His high tour level resumé is paper thin yet promising. At Wimbledon, where he arrived as the 19th seed after scarcely a year on the big boys circuit, Auger-Aliassime is the youngest male participant and first man born in to the 2000s to record a win, his first round dismissal of Canadian compatriot Vasek Pospisil.

Now he is through to the third round, with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 dispatch of young French qualifier Corentin Moutet. As was, on the same Court 3 earlier, Thornhill’s Milos Raonic, with a straight set sweep of Robin Haase of the Netherlands, although it was not as effortless as it sounds for the No. 15 seed.

In truth, Auger-Aliassime’s match was all over the place, a bit wobbly in the middle and with opportunities squandered by the lefty Moutet, who converted just two of 14 break-point chances and racked up 11 double faults. Though his opponent wasn’t far back with nine.

Still, Auger-Aliassime broke the world No. 84 five times in the three-hour match, dominating with powerful ground strokes, a strong second serve and some nifty volleys at the net.

The lauded new kid on the block acknowledged that he was riven with nerves.

“I think the circumstances being that I’m looked at as a favourite for this match, it’s something different,” said Auger-Aliassime, who is fluently bilingual. “I have played him before but it’s big stages, big moments. So obviously the nerves come in. I try to manage as best I could.”

Skittishness got the best of him in the only set he dropped, broken in the last game.

“He was holding the ball well and moving it around and being very aggressive. Any time he had the chance, he came in quite a lot. In the end I was more able to maybe serve a little better and find a way to victory.”

Queried about his admitted nerves, Auger-Aliassime pointed out, heck, why wouldn’t he be tense and who isn’t on a Grand Slam court? It’s always been thus, anyway, an accompaniment to his chosen profession.

“I can recall being 10 years old and playing away from home and being nervous. Since I’m very young, you kind of learn how to deal with this pressure, the stress. No, it’s Grand Slams. Maybe one day I’ll (be in the) finals of these events and I’ll be for sure extremely nervous. It’s emotions and you can’t go against. It comes and then it all depends on how you deal with it. And today I was able to deal with it in a good way, yeah.”

Auger-Aliassime is on a quick-tempo pace. Many observers are overreaching, pulling for him to make a Wimbledon splash. It is precisely the type of burdensome expectation that has sunk Zverev, the world No. 5, at Slams. Auger-Aliassime was asked, seriously, if he might be the comer to carry his sport into the near future.

“Carry the sport is a bit much,” he demurred. He also cracked up.

“It’s quite funny because I think for a lot of players, when they play their first Grand Slam, they have zero expectations. No one talks about them for the majority. For me to play, not my first Slam, but to win my first match (Monday) and already people are talking about me going very far.

“It’s something very odd.”

Correction- July 15, 2019: This article was edited from a previous version that misstated the location of the U.S. Open.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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