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Felix Auger-Aliassime takes his next measured step as a U.S. Open quarterfinalist

Felix Auger-Aliassime faces Carlos Alcaraz in the U.S. Open quarterfinals Tuesday. (Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

NEW YORK — It is all-consuming work for even the most gifted phenom to reach the top 20 in the world. So it would be understandable if 15th-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime, who turned 21 last month, concerned himself with nothing beyond the white lines of the tennis court.

But after defeating American Frances Tiafoe to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Canada’s Auger-Aliassime wasn’t interested in only discussing his career-best achievement. He addressed the symbolic import of the match that he and Tiafoe had contested — as sons of immigrants who have made their place in professional tennis — in a 24,000-seat stadium named for late tennis and human rights champion Arthur Ashe.

“I think Frances and I can be proud of ourselves for stepping on that court today,” Auger-Aliassime, whose father, Sam, is from Togo and mother, Marie, is French Canadian, said after Sunday’s victory. Tiafoe’s parents fled war-torn Sierra Leone for the D.C. suburbs.

“We have come a long way,” he continued. “It’s not like the road is clear from where he came from, from where I came from. It’s a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice. So to have new faces in tennis on this stage ... of course, we are playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium — he was the pioneer. But now, to have kids like Frances and I stepping up and playing some good tennis, I really hope it inspires and sends a good message to other young players or kids out there.”

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Auger-Aliassime is no overnight sensation at this U.S. Open, which seems to be birthing teenage stars with each round.

Britain’s Emma Raducanu became the latest teen to reach the quarterfinals with her 6-2, 6-1 rout Monday of Shelby Rogers, the last American woman standing. Raducanu, 18, was preceded into the final eight by Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday. On the men’s side, Carlos Alcaraz, 18, reached the quarterfinals after back-to-back five-set thrillers, helped by cheers from New York crowds that have rallied behind the Spaniard.

Auger-Aliassime has been eyed as the sport’s next great thing since he was 14. But his ascension in the rankings — from 613th at the end of 2016 to 108th at the end of 2018 to his current 15th — has been the product of carefully planned and methodical progression. His four-set victory over the fan favorite Tiafoe was much the same, marked by the composure, maturity and problem-solving of a veteran.

After getting pasted by Tiafoe’s forehand blasts to lose the opening set, Auger-Aliassime adjusted with the analytical demeanor of a master Scrabble player conjuring the word that will score maximum points. Scrabble just happens to be a favorite game Auger-Aliassime plays with his sister.

Against Tiafoe, he stepped forward after ceding the first set and kicked up his aggression to level the match at one apiece. He proved the steadier man in the pivotal third-set tiebreaker. And at 6-foot-4 and 194 pounds, he blasted 24 aces en route to the victory.

At no point did he telegraph panic or irritation — either in the match or, for that matter, over the past three seasons, in which he has reached eight ATP finals but has yet to claim a title. His temperament, like his game, appears built for the long haul.

After clinching his U.S. Open quarterfinal berth on the heels of reaching Wimbledon’s final eight in July, Auger-Aliassime spoke about the difference between confidence, which in his experience comes and goes with wins and losses, and self-belief, which he views as the bedrock of his game.

“[Self-belief] shouldn’t change too much with the wins and the losses,” he said. “I feel like you have to go back to training. You have to keep pushing and always keep that self-belief because once it’s gone nobody is going to believe for you.”

He was 5 when he started playing tennis under the supervision of his father, who owns a tennis academy. He showed enough promise as a youngster to draw the attention of the sport’s national governing body, Tennis Canada, which was eager to develop his talent at its training center in Montreal. At 14, he relocated there.

Soon, he began achieving “firsts” — such as becoming the youngest player to win an ATP Challenger Tour match, at 14. Others followed, drawing comparisons among seasoned coaches and agents to the previous generation’s young phenoms, Richard Gasquet of France and Rafael Nadal of Spain.

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Veteran tennis journalist Stephanie Myles, a Canadian who has covered Auger-Aliassime since he was 14, believes his work ethic and humility have been as central to his success as his strokes and athleticism. She first saw him play in a professional tournament in Quebec, where he beat a veteran player ranked roughly 200th in the world. He was swarmed by Canadian sportswriters afterward.

“It was the first time he was dealing with attention,” Myles recalled. “He answered all the questions, which were fairly basic, and then he went and shook every journalist’s hand.”

That was her first impression of him as uncommonly mature, and it has not changed.

“He has always had that poise and that maturity,” Myles said. “I think that has allowed him to take these very gradual steps in his career, without burning out.”

She also believes Auger-Aliassime’s seriousness of purpose is partly why Toni Nadal, who forged nephew Rafael into a 20-time Grand Slam champion, agreed in the spring to join Auger-Aliassime’s coaching team, now led by Frederic Fontang.

Toni Nadal doesn’t accompany Auger-Aliassime to all of his tournaments, but he has been at the U.S. Open to be a guide and sounding board as his young Canadian charge vanquished two Spanish opponents — Bernabe Zapata Miralles and 18th-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut — in his first three matches.

Up next Tuesday is a third: Alcaraz.

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