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Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov look for injury relief as Australian Open set to open

Felix Auger-Aliassime Felix Auger-Aliassime - The Canadian Press

MELBOURNE, Australia — Canadian men’s tennis was plagued by injuries in 2023.

But as the 2024 season begins, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov have both been pronounced — if not good as new — at least good to go for their first-round matches at the Australian Open Monday.

Auger-Aliassime, the No. 27 seed, faces former U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem of Austria.

Shapovalov, whose ranking plummeted outside the top 100 last November for the first time since he entered that elite company at age 18, will play 18-year-old Czech qualifier Jakub Mensik.

Both men suffered injuries to their left knees during the previous season.

Auger-Aliassime says the two players have followed similar paths throughout their careers, noting the trend continues as they seek fresh starts at Melbourne Park.

“The realities of a sporting career kind of caught up with us. We were privileged, fortunate ever since Shapo made his semifinal in Montreal (The National Bank Open, in 2017). Every year went better and better for me, too," Auger-Aliassime said, noting both players managed to make a grand slam semi-final each year.

“And here we are on the same track again. We both had complicated seasons last year because of injury, and we’ll both now have to learn to manage that aspect of our careers”.

Shapovalov was ranked No. 18 a year ago. But he went a pedestrian 13-13 in 2023 in the throes of knee discomfort he first felt in Vienna during a match against Daniil Medvedev in Oct. 2022.

After reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in July, the 24-year-old didn’t play.

He tried to mount a comeback for the North American summer hard-court swing, including in Toronto and the U.S. Open, but continued to be hampered by knee trouble.

Shapovalov underwent some platelet-rich plasma treatments in the fall, which appear to have resolved the patella tear issue and some additional tendinitis.

“I’m able to play pain-free. And it’s been a couple of months, so it's been really positive because I was struggling with it for awhile," Shapovalov said. "Even in September when I was practising, it was very questionable that I was going to be back early (in 2024).”

The 24-year-old’s ATP Tour ranking sits at No. 116 this week. But by waiting until last week to return to action, Shapovalov was officially out for six months and was able to take advantage of a special ranking of No. 29 that allowed him to get straight into the Australian Open.

He’ll be able to enter seven other tournaments with that ranking, used by players as they get back on court if their standings drop during an injury-related absence. That ranking does not, however, offer him the privilege of being seeded.

For Auger-Aliassime, who began 2023 ranked No. 6 but currently stands at No. 27, the left knee ligament issue might not have seemed as severe simply because he missed fewer tournaments than Shapovalov. But it affected his entire season.

“I decided to try to continue to try to find solutions, to play despite the pain. Finally, I was rewarded at the end of the year. But of course I had those same questions at certain moments,” Auger-Aliassime said.

At 22, he played nearly 100 top-level matches between singles and doubles in 2022, and his season didn’t finish into well into December after he led Canada to its first Davis Cup title.

That meant almost no break before he had to start the 2023 season in Australia just a few weeks later.

It was too much, and his left knee paid the price.

Auger-Aliassime won just three matches between Madrid in April and Tokyo in mid-October. He did rally to defend his title at the ATP 500 in Basel — one of three consecutive tournament titles he won on the fall European indoor circuit — but he wrapped up his season a week later and wasn’t able to help Canada defend its Davis Cup crown in late November.

He underwent stem-cell treatments on his knee after the season wound down.

Both have been in Melbourne since last week, and the two Canadian stars practised together on Friday.

“We both had a complicated year, but I’m happy to see that he’s in good shape again. And this year we’ll both try to find our best level again, the level we enjoyed in the past," Auger-Aliassime said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2024.