EXCLUSIVE: Felix Auger-Aliassime's Coach Fredric Fontang - 'Felix Can Win Wimbledon This Year' - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE: Felix Auger-Aliassime’s Coach Fredric Fontang – ‘Felix Can Win Wimbledon This Year’

Fontang has been an instrumental figure in the development of Auger-Aliassime throughout his professional career. In a wide-ranging interview with Ubitennis, he sheds light on the mentality of the world No.7 who he believes has what it takes to win his maiden Grand Slam title this year.

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Felix Auger-Aliassime (Roberto Dell'Olivo)

By Federico Bertelli

Just before the start of the Australian Open, Ubitennis spoke with Felix Auger Aliassime’s coach, Frederic Fontang. Fontang was nominated and voted by ATP colleagues as one of the five coaches of the year in 2022, as he helped Felix reach the Nitto ATP Finals and climb the rankings to world No. 6.

Ubitennis: To start, can you comment on how the past year has gone?

Fontang: This is the time of the year when we return to Australia and start a new season. We are happy with the just-completed season, Felix won four tournaments and qualified for the Finals in Turin, which is a wonderful city by the way. So many positive emotions and so many “check marks” on the list of goals to achieve. He won the Davis Cup, he also won ATP 500 level tournaments, so the next steps are naturally the 1000s, the Slams, and the number 1 ranking. But the competition doesn’t stop and so we have to keep going like this.

Ubitennis: My next question concerns the mental aspects of tennis. This sport is sometimes called the devil’s game. From your point of view, mentally, what are Felix’s strengths and weaknesses on a tennis court? For example, in 2022 Felix was comparatively better at saving break points than converting them.

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(Break point against top 20’s – Year 2022)

Fontang: Of course, one of Felix’s strengths is his serve, which helps him a lot in saving himself. While trying to convert a break point he is in response and therefore obviously starts from a defensive position. But this is only part of the explanation and it’s an aspect that we have to improve. As for the mental part, his strength is resilience. Regardless of the results, whether he wins or loses, he still comes back the next day to train with a positive attitude, as happened last year at Wimbledon and the US Open, where he lost in the first round. But he was able to get back on the court with all the attention and focus necessary to get back on track. He is very consistent, he knows where he wants to get to and this is definitely a strength of Felix.

Ubitennis: Yes, mental strength is definitely a key factor in the training of a professional tennis player and has been for several decades now. Are techniques such as the “16 seconds cure” of Jim Loehr and similar mental preparation methods still relevant today?

Fontang: Tennis is a tough competition, it’s a bit like boxing but without physical contact. Everyone wants to impose their game and be aggressive. This means always being ready on every point, every shot. During the exchanges, it is essential to be reactive. And then between one point and the next, you shouldn’t be discouraged by a wrong shot, the important thing is to stay in the present and focus on the next point. Let’s say that before, more attention was paid to trying to maintain aggressiveness on the court, while now we know the brain better. We have more tools to understand how the brain and the body work and we try to apply them. With Felix, we try to develop tools to communicate and guide him in the best way in the routines, in the match preparation and during the match. What I see is that today the toolbox from this point of view is much richer.

Ubitennis: I assume it’s somewhat a discovery process where you try different things and see what works? Also how much the player “buys into” what you are trying to propose; what is Felix’s attitude towards this?

Fontang: It is an aspect that we agree on and are working on, along with the physical, technical, and tactical aspects. Every player is different and you have to find the right keys for each one. But we are improving, to make things simpler. It is necessary to be consistent and to be able to switch the switch and go into “competition” mode. Furthermore, it is fundamental not to look neither forward nor backward but to stay in the present, a bit like in life. Only that sport is an accelerator, everything goes much faster.

Ubitennis: Have you ever seen Felix give the impression of giving up during a match, for example when an opponent is playing at their best and you can see negative body language signals? Have you ever seen Felix turn to your corner during a match as if to say “What do I do with this?” How do you handle these situations? Perhaps a burst of anger to give him a shake could be an idea?

Fontang: It’s like with technique, you have to train not only on the mechanics of the shots, but train to repeat how to handle certain situations well. Frustration and anger emerges when expectations are not aligned with executions. Sometimes it happens and it’s normal and emotions come. But the point is not to block emotions, it’s to learn to manage them, recognize them and deal with them appropriately. To do this, you need to apply techniques, but these things also need to be trained. In Felix’s case, for example, one key to his game is aggressiveness, his game is very physical and the energy he puts into the court must always be very high. The risk, however, is to put too much energy into it and go out of bounds. So, it’s necessary to show intensity, a positive body language, to release tension and be aggressive, but when the intensity starts to be too much and emotions exceed a certain threshold, he has learned to slow down and regain control of the situation. And here it’s a matter of applying the right tools: for example, focusing on breathing, visualizing certain images, and activating routines. But all this needs to be trained so that when you play seriously, things come out more naturally.

Ubitennis: “Let’s switch to a slightly different aspect: here we are talking about attitude: is it possible to have a fiercely competitive spirit in the field and be a normal and balanced person outside? I mean, always refusing to lose with all one’s might is perhaps one of the distinctive traits of a great champion, what do you think?”

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Fontang: This is my personal view, which is also the view of Felix’s parents and how Felix was raised. For example, Felix is a good person, but this is due to his upbringing. I believe that one should behave well, both on and off the court, whether one wins or loses. At high levels, one also becomes a role model for children, and it is important to send the right messages. I believe that there are clear guidelines to follow, but this does not mean being passive. I think one can be a great fighter on the court, but still respect one’s opponents and fans, as Federer and Nadal have always done. Emotions can’t be eliminated, but there are limits. Showing emotions, both positive and negative, is fine, but there are still limits. For example, breaking a racket can happen in a moment of frustration, but the frequency at which it happens also matters. Children watch and we have to be good models. If we behave badly, it sends the message that to be successful, one must behave negatively. It’s not just a matter of winning and losing, but also how.

Ubitennis: Let’s play a little game since it’s the beginning of the year: if you had to bet in 2023, who would win the Grand Slam tournaments and who would go to Turin?

Fontang: Aside from Felix, who is now in a position to present himself as a contender for the win, I think that Rafa, even though many say he might retire, won 2 Slams last year and finished the season as world No. 2. I think Rafa remains the favorite for Roland Garros despite everything. For the Australian Open**, obviously there’s Djokovic. We trained together in Adelaide and Novak is ready for the challenge. And let’s not forget Medvedev. For the hard court tournaments, I would say that Djokovic and Medvedev are my two favorites, so for the US Open and Australian Open, I would bet on them. And finally, for Wimbledon, I think the discussion is more open. Felix has already made it to the quarters there, has a great serve and has all the weapons to do well. So my prediction is Felix winning at Church Road.

** Interview conducted before start of Australian Open 

Ubitennis: As an Italian, I hope that at Wimbledon there will also be Sinner and Berrettini as contenders.

Fontang: Yes, of course, Wimbledon is the tournament that lends itself best to surprises. Grass is always special. Djokovic obviously is among the favorites, but also Berrettini and Sinner should be remembered, Fritz is also not to be underestimated.

Ubitennis: Let’s end the interview with the last two questions: in the next few days the series “Break Point” will be released on Netflix, produced by the same team as the “F1 drive to survive” series. I saw that Felix appears in the teaser, so I assume you were involved: can you give us some feedback on this experience? In the end, it must have been something new, having TV crews following you even in the most private moments and in areas where media normally do not have access. Was it something that bothered you? Or in the end, was it a pleasure to share these aspects? And finally, one last thing: can you give us some advance/impression? Have you seen anything in preview?

Fontang: It’s true that the Netflix crew was present during the Masters 1000 and Grand Slam tournaments last year. Not always, of course, but they were seen before and after the matches and also in the gym or during training sessions. But they behaved extremely professionally, maintaining distance when required. In this respect, there is nothing to say. And on our side, it’s true that at first it was a little strange and maybe we weren’t very natural, but then we got used to it and it was a nice experience. As for the aftermath, I wouldn’t know: we know as much as you do. I’ve only seen the teaser too, so I can’t help you. Felix did well, it was a positive story, so I think they gave him space, but you can’t know. Netflix and the producers have their own agenda and priorities, even in terms of narrative. They need to build stories that are interesting, and I hope it reflects reality and that the need to put together a story still reflects reality.

Ubitennis: Closing with one last question: in a way the media is necessary for the show, but I understand that it can sometimes be a hassle; if you could decide how things should be organized, how would you like it to be? Would you like a more collaborative relationship?

Fontang: I believe journalists are very important, not just in sports. They have a connection with the athletes and can reach and disseminate information that would not otherwise be available. But I think for the players, things could be organized differently, in the end it’s always a bit the same, a bit monotonous. The questions almost always repeat themselves, it would be nice to make things more interesting. In the end, the players are young and are used to managing social media, so maybe it’s also a matter of content; and then there is also a timing issue, when to do these things. After the match, it is obviously necessary to talk to the athletes, but also talking to the coaches would be interesting, even for some insights, discussing the preparation for matches, or even mental aspects. But it is important to find tools and establish a process to make everything easier. I hope that in the future things can improve, there is certainly room for improvement.

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