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Felix Auger-Aliassime Picks Up Where Denis Shapovalov Left Off

MONTREAL — Two years after his remarkable victory over Rafael Nadal at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Denis Shapovalov still watches video of the match, one of the most significant in Canadian tennis history.

He does so when he needs to regain the focus and energy required to compete on the ATP Tour.

“I always kind of try to go back to when I’m a little bit down or confident,” Shapovalov said after his first-round win over the Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert at the Rogers Cup on Monday. “I try to go back into the best moments of my life.”

Then 18 and in his first professional season, Shapovalov, a Toronto resident, stunned Nadal, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4), in the round of 16 before a boisterous crowd. Shapovalov then defeated the Frenchman Adrian Mannarino before being ousted by the eventual champion, Alexander Zverev, in the semifinals.

The tennis world saw Shapovalov’s performance as a breakthrough. He reached the fourth round of the United States Open that year too. Titles were expected, sooner rather than later. Instead, by Shapovalov’s own admission, he lost the drive and energy that he said made him push himself so hard against Nadal.

This time around, in Montreal, the spotlight is shining brightly on another young Canadian: Felix Auger-Aliassime, who was Shapovalov’s roommate during that dream run two years ago. Born and reared in Montreal, Auger-Aliassime has been the face of the 2019 Rogers Cup’s marketing in the city, and with good reason.

Ranked 21st in the world and turning 19 on Thursday, he has reached three ATP Tour singles finals this year and in May became the youngest player to break into the men’s top 25 since Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in 1999.

“It’s a dream come true for a kid from here,” Auger-Aliassime said this week when asked about playing in front of his hometown fans for the first time as a professional. “I mean, I came so many times to watch this tournament.”

One of Auger-Aliassime’s fondest memories of the tournament was watching his good friend Shapovalov’s upset victory.

“He beat Rafa in front of thousands of fans, and I was shaking,” he said.

Since then, Shapovalov has made just two other Masters 1000 semifinals, losing to Roger Federer in Miami in March and to Zverev in Madrid last year.

Now ranked No. 32, Shapovalov knows that the familiarity of IGA Stadium could make it the perfect environment to reset his career.

“For me, a lot of people mention that I kind of lost that fire in me, that pumped-ness, whatever it is,” said Shapovalov, who lost to the No. 2 seed, Dominic Thiem, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, on Wednesday. “I was like, ‘You’re so right.’”

On Tuesday afternoon, Auger-Aliassime got his first taste of having the eyes of his country on him. In front of more than 12,000 spectators at Center Court, he defeated a fellow Canadian, Vasek Pospisil, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3), in a match that took two and a half hours and required two tiebreakers.

Auger-Aliassime admitted that he was nervous and not playing his best tennis in certain moments.

“For sure, I was scared of losing,” he said. “I can almost recall every point of the match.”

Auger-Aliassime advanced to the third round on Wednesday when his opponent — the Canadian star Milos Raonic, who was the No. 17 seed — had to retire for medical reasons.

In only his third professional season, Auger-Aliassime has raised many expectations and won a lot of praise.

“Things that will improve when you’re young, when you’re 18, movement always gets better, power always becomes more,” the former world No. 1 Andy Roddick said in an article on the ATP website. “That’s just going to happen, and he already does both of those things pretty well.”

The longtime tennis broadcaster John Horn said of Auger-Aliassime: “He seems to rebound well from losing a game on serve or when he loses a set. I like his all-around game and his poise and mental toughness. He is good on all surfaces, especially on clay, and combine that with his shotmaking, he can be a force for years to come.”

This week, Auger-Aliassime is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Shapovalov and Nadal, who as a teenage phenom on tour had a professional breakthrough in Montreal.

In 2005, at 19, Nadal won the Rogers Cup by defeating Andre Agassi, then 35, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2. Nadal went on to win the tournament three more times, including last year as its oldest champion in the Open era.

“I like his character,” Nadal said of Auger-Aliassime after a practice session this week. “He’s a very well-educated and nice guy. He’s very passionate about the sport. He’s one of the players that I would love to see at the top position and winning trophies because I think he deserves it.”

Still adjusting to his status in the sport, Auger-Aliassime was surprised and flattered to hear the praise.

“You’re like, ‘Wow, Rafa actually knows who I am and knows my name and now today he’s saying these types of things,’” he said. “It’s a good feeling. It just shows that I’m doing the right things and that I’m on a good path.”

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