It’s the start of a new year in the world of tennis and unless your name is Novak Djokovic or Iga Swiatek, who are firmly in the saddle at the top of the mountain, the ambition of every athlete is to climb the ranks at world ranking. But in some cases, the desired climb may require a bit of patience.
A few hours before their first match at the Australian Open, Montrealer Félix Auger-Aliassime and Ontario Denis Shapovalov find themselves in this position.
Exactly a year ago, Auger-Aliassime showed up in Melbourne ranked seventh in the ATP rankings, after an electrifying end to the 2022 calendar which saw him win three tournaments in as many weeks.
On Monday, he will attack the Australian Open from 30th place when he faces Austrian Dominic Thiem. Auger-Aliassime will be looking for a first singles victory since October 31 at the Paris Masters.
If he makes it through the first two rounds, Auger-Aliassime could have to face Russian Daniil Medvedev, against whom he has lost his six career duels.
In fact, it appears the knee wasn’t fully recovered at the start of the year, to the point where Auger-Aliassime had to skip the singles matches at the United Cup mixed team tournament in Sydney, to which he was registered.
Since the second round of the Paris Masters on November 1, Auger-Aliassime has only played one singles match. It was January 9 in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lost in two rounds and two hours 35 minutes to Daniel Altmaier, a German then ranked 57th in the world.
“It’s still better because he played a full match, quite long, in Auckland. It’s still positive,” said Guillaume Marx, head of performance at Tennis Canada.
“When you have been stopped for a few months, you have to take three months of competition before taking stock. We are at the very beginning of the year. I think we have to wait a little but he is giving encouraging signs,” added Marx, during a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.
At the start of the year, Marx is of the opinion that Auger-Aliassime must feel, physically, that he is regaining his means to begin what he calls a gradual rise in power.
In the case of Shapovalov, who will face a qualifier on Monday, the climb to get back to where he was a year ago is significantly steeper than that which Auger-Aliassime must negotiate.
From 22nd to mid-January 2023, the Ontarian will occupy 114th place on Monday, after an absence from the courts which lasted almost six months, also due to a knee injury.
His 2023 season ended after his fourth-round elimination at the Wimbledon International on July 9.
“He’s a bit like Felix,” Marx said of Shapovalov, who was defeated in straight sets in his first match at the Auckland tournament on Monday.
“What we can expect is that the injury is definitely behind him and that he then arrives in full possession of his physical means. Today, you can no longer compete if you are not at 100% of your physical capabilities. The competition is too tough,” Marx recalls.
If Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov hope to regain physical well-being as soon as possible, Laval resident Leylah Annie Fernandez will try to continue her momentum from the last months of 2023.
After a mid-year slump, Fernandez managed to climb the WTA rankings to 35th.
That’s where she will find herself on Sunday (Saturday night in Quebec) in her first match, facing Sara Bejlek, a qualifier from the Czech Republic who is only 17 years old and 134th in the world.
Fernandez finished senior year strong, capturing a third career singles title in Hong Kong in mid-October.
Above all, we will remember the way she led Canada to its first conquest of the Billie-Jean-King Cup, in November, thanks to her brilliance in both singles and doubles.
This inspired game and her brawling behavior will be necessary in the event of a duel against the talented American Coco Gauff in the third round of the women’s singles in Melbourne.
Marx did not hide it; it is ambitious for the 21-year-old Quebecer.
“She made a Grand Slam final [United States in 2021], she still went down a lot in the rankings, then she almost left the top 100, she was able to start playing well again, especially in doubles and then in singles. It happened, she came back,” he first recalled.
“She starts the year 35, she already has titles, she is very ambitious. For her, the goal is to do even better than what she has already done so far, therefore, to win bigger titles. »