Once Djokovic dust clears, Canadians set to contend at Aussie Open
Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov, Fernandez take aim at Grand Slam glory
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.
It could be a big year for Canadian tennis
All eyes in the tennis world are on Australia right now — and really, they're on Novak Djokovic, who won his court battle to enter the country despite visa issues stemming from his vaccination status.
But Djokovic isn't in the clear yet, with Australia's immigration minister threatening to use his power to deport the top-ranked player. Meanwhile, the Serb said he had not travelled within 14 days of landing in Australia on his immigration form, yet he was seen both in his home country and in Spain in that time period.
The Australian Open, at which Djokovic hopes to break a tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the men's Grand Slam championship record, begins next Monday in Melbourne.
Most competitors have been stationed in Australia for some time now, where tune-up tournaments happened throughout the country and Canada claimed its first-ever ATP Cup title.
But once the Djokovic dust settles, the season-opening major will take centre stage. Here's where some of the Canadian tennis contingent stands:
After beating No. 17 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in the ATP Cup final, Auger-Aliassime climbed to ninth in ATP rankings — the same spot at which he's to be seeded for the Australian Open when the draw is revealed on Thursday. Auger-Aliassime, 21, reached his first-ever Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon last year, only to one-up himself with a run to the U.S. Open semis a few months later. That sets up a natural progression for the Montreal native, whose next steps should be to play for a major championship and to claim his first individual ATP singles title. In fact, Auger-Aliassime has never won so much as a single set in the eight tournament finals he's played since 2019. Perhaps his clutch performance at the ATP Cup was the spark he needed.
Fernandez's 2021 would be a good template for Auger-Aliassime to follow after his fellow Montrealer won both her first tournament (the Monterrey Open back in March) and reached her first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open in September. For Fernandez, the question now is how to produce a sequel, though she's still just 19 and only two years removed from her Grand Slam debut in Melbourne in 2020. The Canadian, ranked a career-high 24th, lost in the first round of both her previous Australian Open appearances, so a victory or two Down Under could make a good building block for that follow-up campaign.
The Richmond Hill, Ont., native has been an ATP Tour staple since taking most improved player honours in 2017. In that time, he reached a career-high ranking of 10th (last August) and made three singles finals, winning his lone title at the Stockholm Open in 2019. Now 22 years old, Shapovalov appears to have reached a point in his career where he shows occasional greatness (like making his first major semifinal at Wimbledon last year) before suffering a frustrating loss (like as the top seed in the first round of his very next tournament). He beat No. 21 Pablo Carreno Busta in the ATP Cup final — but to show true growth, he'll need to win matches like that consistently over the course of the season.
Bianca Andreescu and Milos Raonic
The oft-injured Canadians each withdrew from the Australian Open. In making the announcement more than a month ago, Andreescu said she needed more time to reset physically and mentally following a year in which multiple COVID-19 scares caused her to "not feel like [herself]." She still managed some success despite that, making the Miami Open final in April before retiring mid-match with an ankle injury. Raonic, who's fallen all the way to 69th, cited a heel injury in backing out of the season-opening major. The 31-year-old will have missed each of the last four Grand Slams.
Other than Fernandez, the doubles player was arguably the most successful Canadian on tour in 2021. Alongside Brazilian partner Luisa Stefani, the Ottawa native made three finals, picking up a championship at the National Bank Open in Montreal. Dabrowski, 29, eventually reached a ranking of fifth — the highest ever for a Canadian women's doubles player. But she switched partners for the coming season to No. 18 Giuliana Olmos of Mexico. The new pairing's first big test will come at the Australian Open.
Canada's Olympic women's hockey team is set. The roster, highlighted by Olympic stars Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner and Sarah Nurse, didn't feature much surprise, given there were only three cuts from the group that's currently centralized in a bubble in Calgary. And in further effort to avoid the virus, the team won't play another competitive game until the start of its Olympic tournament on Feb. 2 against Switzerland — two days before the opening ceremony in Beijing. After taking gold at every Games between 2002 and 2014, Canada stumbled to silver following a shootout loss to the U.S. at the most recent Winter Olympics, meaning the latest edition of the team will be charged with righting the ship. We now know three groups of Canadian athletes headed to China (figure skating and men's and women's curling are the others), but with a deadline to nominate athletes to the national Olympic committee next Wednesday, you can expect a flood of announcements in the coming week. Check out the full 23-woman hockey roster here.
Ontario university and college athletes are sidelined, but no one seems sure why. Under the province's latest COVID-19 restrictions, seven "elite amateur" sports leagues were permitted to move forward, yet student-athletes — not granted that "elite" status — were shut out of the field of play. The ruling, meant to protect students from the raging Omicron variant, instead caused confusion among athletes and experts alike, with a government official simply saying that university and college sports would continue "when it is safe to do so." One "elite" league, the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association, is a high-school circuit from which players often graduate into the post-secondary level. Meanwhile, university and college athletes are already coming off a 2020-21 campaign in which sports were wiped out due to the pandemic. Now, they find themselves in limbo once again. Read more about the decision and ensuing reaction in senior contributor Shireen Ahmed's debut column for CBC Sports.
You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.