Who will challenge - or dethrone - Djokovic in 2022?

At age 34, Djokovic remains highly motivated to grab more majors to break his current deadlock with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20. But will the brightest from the New Generation halt his charge?

Novak Djokovic, 34, has stayed in superb physical condition, a sine qua non to win gruelling, high-pressure matches. But can the likes of (from left) Casper Ruud of Norway, Andrey Rublev of Russia, Alexander Zverev of Germany, Matteo Berrettini of Italy, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stefanos Tsitipas of Greece, and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland ahead of the Nitto ATP Tour Finals at on November 12, 2021 in Turin. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for ATP )   -  Getty Images for ATP

We know what we are, but know not what may be.” – Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

Rod Laver never won another major title, or even reached a major semifinal, after completing his second calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969 at age 31. Serena Williams, the consensus women’s GOAT, nearly achieved the coveted Grand Slam at age 33 before heavy underdog Roberta Vinci upset her in the 2015 US Open semifinals. After that heartbreaking defeat, Williams fared better than Laver, capturing two more majors.

A similar scenario faced Novak Djokovic when he faltered just one victory short of the first men’s Grand Slam since Laver’s at the US Open in September. Playing flawless tennis, world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev dashed the Serb’s hopes with a stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 triumph.

At age 34, Djokovic remains highly motivated to grab more majors to break his current deadlock with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 and also extend his current Masters titles record of 37. Equally important, he’s stayed in superb physical condition, a sine qua non to win gruelling, high-pressure matches.

With Federer, 40, hampered by a knee injury along with advanced age, and Nadal, 35, declining, Djokovic now faces his stiffest competition from the New Generation. While Medvedev and Olympic gold medallist Alexander Zverev are the most prominent rising stars, others could leapfrog over them in 2022.

Let’s evaluate the best and brightest candidates for the top spot in what could prove the most transitional and wide-open year since 2003.

Stefanos Tsitsipas   -  Getty Images

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas

PROS: “The Greek Freak” boasts two “youngest” claims to fame that show his all-court versatility and talent to beat the elite. He’s the youngest of 24 players to defeat Nadal on clay (2018, Madrid) and the youngest (by age 20) of 28 players to take down Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic. Tsitsipas, 23, possesses the best volley on the ATP Tour, and combined with his 6'4" physique and athleticism, the best overall net game. His serve, though flawed by an erratic toss that throws him off balance, is still a weapon, as is his powerful forehand.

Tsitsipas came close to capturing his first Grand Slam title at the French Open in June, beating No. 2 Medvedev and No. 6 Zverev before Djokovic outlasted him 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. “Despite my loss today, I have faith in my game,” he said. “I was close today. I think with the same attitude, I see no reason for me not to hold that trophy one day.”

CONS: The main roadblock to a major title for No. 4-ranked Tsitsipas is a relatively weak, one-handed backhand. He can hit it with topspin and slice, but opponents sometimes overpower it with big serves and groundstrokes and outsteady it in long rallies. The sometimes-volatile Greek also has problems winning close matches: 13 of his 18 losses this year resulted from dropping the deciding set.

Taylor Fritz   -  Getty Images

 

Taylor Fritz

PROS: “Fritz is increasingly finding a way to win on his average days, a trademark of champions,” says former world No. 4 Gene Mayer. One reason is his straightforward power game has gradually become more consistent, especially his high-risk, high-reward groundstrokes. The 24-year-old American’s biggest weapon is his explosive serve, which peaked at 147 mph.

Fritz, ranked No. 23, boasts two more critical assets, according to Tennis Channel analyst Jan-Michael Gambill. “I love his mental approach to every match,” Gambill said. “If you love the game that much, it’s easier to compete. And Taylor has incredible hand-eye coordination, which enables him to get out of some tricky situations.”

The big tactical variable is how early Fritz hits the balls. “His two top-10 victories against No. 4 Alexander Zverev, and No. 7 Matteo Berrettini were built on stepping forward to attack the ball much more than his higher-ranked opponents,” wrote Craig O’Shannessey on ATP.com. “Fritz made contact with the ball 45 per cent of the time inside the baseline against Berrettini and 31 per cent against Zverev. Fritz was well rewarded for taking the ball early and dictating play.”

CONS: His movement remains a liability, especially on defense where other New Gen big men Medvedev, Zverev, and Tsitsipas clearly outperform him. His net game must improve for him to crack the top 10. “One of the final pieces is his transition game,” says Gambill. “It’s improved, but his volleys have to get better, especially on low balls.”

Casper Ruud   -  Getty Images

 

Casper Ruud

PROS: Overshadowed by younger rising stars Sebastian Korda, Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the 22-year-old Norwegian started the year under the radar with a solid but unspectacular No. 27 ranking and only one title on his resume. Ten months later, a much-improved Ruud amassed four more tour-level titles at 250 tournaments in Geneva, Bastad, Gstaad, Kitzbühel, and San Diego to shoot up to a career-high No. 8, becoming the first Norwegian to crack the top 10. His momentum accelerated at the ATP Finals. There, he fired 34 winners, including 14 aces, to overcome Andrey Rublev 2-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) in a high-quality elimination match to qualify for the semifinals.

Ruud’s chief weapon is a potent forehand with vicious topspin. His first serve, once a relative weakness, now regularly registers over 120 mph, while his confident second serve is consistently around 100 mph. He also boasts solid strokes in every department, and vital intangibles such as poise, concentration, and hyper-competitiveness.

CONS: At only 6' and 170 pounds, Ruud faces a big size disadvantage against the towering New Generation. He lacks the huge first serves of Zverev and Berrettini, the technical perfection of Djokovic and Korda, and the blazing speed of Auger-Aliassime and Alcaraz. And until the ATP Finals, he had only a 3-11 career record against top-10 opponents, including 2-6 this year with all the losses in straight sets.

Andrey Rublev   -  Getty Images

 

Andrey Rublev

PROS: His father was a boxer, and Rublev brings that puncher’s mentality to tennis. He smacks most shots as hard as his wiry 6'2", 165-pound physique can generate. After winning a Tour-high five titles in 2020, the 24-year-old Russian attained a career-high No. 5 ranking this year. At the last three majors, though, Rublev suffered disappointing five-set losses to middle-echelon players — No. 42 Jan Lennard Struff at the French Open, No. 48 Marton Fucsovics at Wimbledon, and No. 50 Frances Tiafoe at the US Open. Even so, he otherwise shined on every surface. Rublev reached the Halle final and Wimbledon fourth round on grass, stunned Nadal en route to the Monte Carlo final on clay, and upset Medvedev to make the Cincinnati final and defeated Tsitsipas while winning the Rotterdam tournament on hard courts.

CONS: On his biggest weakness, Rublev said, “I would say the mental part. This is the main [thing] because the players who are better than me, they know how to manage all these [big-point] moments much better than me.” That weakness was manifested in his close loss to Ruud at the ATP Finals where his nervous second serve barely exceeded 80 mph in the deciding set. Accordingly, his No. 17 ranking in the Under Pressure category, and particularly his mediocre 50 per cent success rate in tiebreakers, need to improve markedly for the Russian to reach a Grand Slam final.

Matteo Berrettini   -  Getty Images

 

Matteo Berrettini

PROS: “Berrettini has arguably the biggest serve and forehand combo in the game,” says Mayer. This formidable one-two punch goes back to its first exponent, legendary 1920s American champion Bill Tilden. Superstar Ivan Lendl (1980s), former No. 1s Jim Courier (1990s) and Andy Roddick (2000s), and 2009 US Open winner Juan Martin del Potro also parlayed these two killer strokes effectively. This combination also carried Berrettini to the 2021 Wimbledon final. His most impressive stat is a No. 3 Under Pressure rating.

CONS: The 25-year-old Italian’s backhand, however, is weaker than those of the aforementioned players. His two-handed backhand is erratic, and his one-handed slice lacks penetration. Berrettini tries his utmost to “run around” to hit as many forehands as possible, sometimes from untenable positions. But this manoeuvre works only to some extent because of his second liability — only average movement. His career-high No. 7 ranking this year was misleading as he scored just one win over a top 10-opponent, a rusty Thiem, back in February. The young sluggers will likely punish Berrettini’s backhand mercilessly as Alcaraz did at the Vienna Open in October.

Dominic Thiem   -  Getty Images

 

Dominic Thiem

PROS: Thiem staked his claim as an elite clay-courter by reaching the 2018 and 2019 Roland Garros finals, losing both to Nadal, after making the semifinals the two previous years. In 2020, the 28-year-old Austrian extended his prowess to hard courts. His concussive topspin groundstrokes and big serve carried him to the Australian final, and seven months later he won his first major title at the US Open.

Thiem didn’t defeat any of the Big Three at Flushing Meadows, but rest assured, he can. Nicknamed “The Dominator,” he went a combined 9-3 against the trio during 2019–20. Aside from grass — he has a horrendous 5-6 record at Wimbledon — he can win anywhere, including indoors, where he’s made two finals at the ATP Finals.

A severe right wrist injury at the Mallorca Championships on June 22 ended his sub-par season with a 9-9 record and dropped him out of the top 10 to No. 15 for the first time since June 2016.

CONS: Thiem is targeting a return at the 2022 Australian Open, but how soon and how fully will he regain his elite form? Although Nadal and Federer have declined since 2020, can the Austrian stave off a phalanx of ambitious New Genners who have emerged as legitimate contenders to take down Djokovic?

Jannik Sinner   -  Getty Images

 

Jannik Sinner

PROS: After Djokovic defeated the 20-year-old Sinner at the Monte Carlo Open, he lavished praise on him. “[Jannik] has got a lot of talent, and he has proven that he is the future of our sport,” Djokovic said. “Actually, he is the present of our sport [having] played a final [in an] ATP Masters 1000 [event] already. He is making big strides in professional tennis.”

Those 2021 strides include a career-high No. 9 ranking and four titles — an ATP 500 tournament in Washington, and 250 events at Melbourne, Sofia, and Antwerp, all on hard courts. The slender, 6'2" Italian also reached the Miami Open final and the round of 16 at the French and US Opens. Not bad for a champion skier who switched to tennis at age 13 and ranked just No. 763 at the end of 2018.

Sinner plays much like Djokovic, but with more groundstroke power that overwhelms most opponents. Unlike the Serb, the uncommonly mature Sinner has remarkable equanimity, regardless of the score or his playing level.

How well and consistently Sinner strikes his backhand down the line will prove critical because most top players go for inside-out forehands and leave themselves out of position.

CONS: Sinner’s only major sin is predictability. His non-stop aggressive game usually overpowers opponents, but he needs more versatility and variety to keep them guessing and off-balance. He also has to add more spin and pace to his second serve to prevent foes from attacking it, as No. 49 Frances Tiafoe did when he upset Sinner at the Vienna Open.

Felix Auger-Aliassime   -  Getty Images

 

Felix Auger-Aliassime

PROS: “Felix is wildly talented. But he’s also a lunch pail pro. He comes to work every day to give his best effort.” That high praise came from former No. 1 Jim Courier, a 1990s lunch pail competitor, during Wimbledon. There, FAA upset No. 6 Zverev in five sets before losing to eventual runner-up Berrettini in a four-set quarterfinal. Trending upward, the 21-year-old Canadian beat New Genners Tiafoe and Alcaraz, becoming the youngest US Open men’s singles semifinalist since 2009, before Medvedev defeated him in straight sets.

One of the fastest and most athletic players on the ATP Tour, No. 10-ranked Felix has solid strokes in every department. His go-to shots are his potent first serve and forehand, though the latter can be error-prone.

CONS: Statistics reveal Auger-Aliassime’s biggest shortcomings. FAA ranks a shockingly low No. 81 overall in the critical Serve Return category. He’s No. 86 in second serve return percentage points won and No. 77 in percentage of return games won, with only 19.8 per cent. Tellingly, Nadal, Djokovic, and Medvedev, rank Nos. 1, 3, and 4, respectively in the overall category. In the Under Pressure category, FAA ranks an abysmal No. 89 with a dismal record of 36.4 per cent in terms of break points converted.

Hubert Hurkacz   -  Getty Images

 

Hubert Hurkacz

PROS: Hubi, as he is affectionately nicknamed, boasts a big first serve, a solid backhand, an above-average volley, excellent court coverage, a high-percentage game, and a strong work ethic. Those attributes steadily have paid off for Hurkacz, who has improved his year-end ranking for eight straight years.

His breakthrough came this year when he achieved a career-high No. 9 ranking and qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals. On hard courts, his best surface, the 24-year-old Pole captured his first Masters title at the Miami Open, beating five highly regarded opponents — Denis Shapovalov, Milos Raonic, Tsitsipas, Rublev, and Sinner. And despite entering Wimbledon with five straight losses, Hurkacz made the semifinals with big wins over Medvedev and his boyhood idol Federer.

CONS: Despite his 6'5" stature, he lacks a knockout punch from the backcourt, and he has the least aggressive forehand in terms of power and topspin of any top-10 player. Hurkacz’s superhero is the comic book Iron Man, who possesses powered armour that gives him superhuman strength and durability, flight, and an array of weapons. Unfortunately, mere mortal Hubi wields much less firepower and will likely fall short of a major title this decade.

Daniil Medvedev   -  Getty Images

 

Daniil Medvedev

PROS: Imagine a 6'6" version of 5'11" Lleyton Hewitt, the speedy, tenacious Australian counterpuncher who captured two majors 20 years ago. Add a big serve and smarter tactics, such as returning serve from 10 feet behind the baseline, and you have Medvedev, the US Open champion and world No. 2.

“Medvedev has a machine-like reliability on hardcourts,” says Mayer. That was never more apparent than at Flushing Meadows where the 25-year-old Russian mowed down the field, thwarting Djokovic’s Grand Slam bid 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the final to capture his first major title.

How Medvedev fares in his head-to-head rivalry with Zverev, now 5-5, will determine, in part, how he fares in 2022. Based on his 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Zverev in the Paris Open semifinals, his fourth straight win over the German, he should do just fine.

Courier summed up the deceptively effective Medvedev best. “He doesn’t look particularly athletic, and he isn’t graceful. But here he is, No. 2 in the world.”

CONS: His last name is translated to “Bear” in Russian, but he’s been anything but bearish in five-set matches, as his 2-7 career record shows. His only five-set wins have come this year over No. 33 Filip Krajinovic at the Australian Open and No. 37 Marin Cilic at Wimbledon. The latter victory apparently exhausted Medvedev because he lost a five-setter to No. 18 Hurkacz in the next round.

A one-trick pony on hard courts where he’s won 12 of his 13 career titles, Medvedev has stumbled on clay, with only a 4-5 record at Paris, and on grass, just 8-4 at Wimbledon, where he’s never reached the quarterfinals. Also, his somewhat unsound volley can let him down, especially on big points.

Alexander Zverev   -  Getty Images

 

Alexander Zverev

PROS: The 6'6" German “produces the highest highs of the elite group,” rightly says Mayer. His explosive first serve propels him to hold serve easily, which enables him to take more groundstroke chances on his return games. His backhand is rock-solid, while his improved forehand pumps out plenty of winners when he’s in top form.

Zverev has often been frustrated at the majors. Most memorably, he’s suffered five-set losses to Thiem in the 2020 US Open final and this season to Tsitsipas at Roland Garros, Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, and Djokovic at the US Open. “He’s strangely precarious in big moments for a top player,” notes Mayer. Even so, he’s racked up a stellar 28-3 record since the start of the Tokyo Olympics, where he upset Djokovic in the semifinals and overwhelmed Karen Khachanov for his first gold medal.

The ambitious, No. 3-ranked Zverev, who captured five of his 18 career titles this year, boasts an even record (5-5) against Medvedev and has beaten Tsitsipas in two of their last three matches and Nadal in three of their last four matches.

In what should prove a wide-open 2022, Zverev has the package to win at least one Grand Slam and multiple Masters titles to wrest the No. 1 ranking from Djokovic. His all-surface versatility should help considerably. He’s won six titles apiece on outdoor hard court, indoor hard courts, and clay. “Zverev can win a major on any surface,” says Courier.

CONS: Zverev may become distracted by the ATP’s current investigation into allegations of physical abuse against a former girlfriend at the 2019 Shanghai Masters 1000 event. Additional off-court troubles could affect his mental health and, ultimately, his tennis game.

His volley, while steadily improving, still breaks down on occasion. And his sometimes inconsistent second serve creates a quandary: whether he should hit it around 90-95 mph to avoid a double fault, or go for broke with a 120 mph serve. Finally, Zverev must improve his mediocre No. 31 ranking in the Under Pressure category, which accounts for his close losses.

Sebastian Korda   -  Getty Images

 

Sebastian Korda

PROS: “He has the soundest technique [of all the talented, young American players]. He does everything well,” said Annacone. Indeed, experts often use the phrase “effortless power” to describe Korda’s groundstrokes. The 21-year-old Korda is also blessed with a terrific pedigree. His father, Petr, ranked No. 2 and won the 1998 Australian Open, while his mother, Regina, whom Sebastian credits for teaching him his impeccable strokes, peaked at No. 26. These nature and nurture advantages also no doubt strengthened his mental game.

“Korda has the poise of a champion at a young age,” says Mayer. “I like his aura of calm and relaxation during the heat of battle,” agrees Courier. As one of the tour’s happiest players, 39th-ranked Sebastian is well-equipped to handle the vicissitudes of competition, and his terrific technique should reduce the chances of a significant injury.

CONS: “His serve needs to become more of a weapon for his [6'5"] size,” says Mayer. While the top 50 men average 115 mph for first serves, the elite players serve much faster. Zverev averages over 130 mph, and several others average over 120, while Korda averaged only 117.6 mph in his victory over Sebastian Baez at the Next Gen ATP Finals. He also has to increase his low ace average of 5.27 per match in 2021. A mid-season technique change from a platform stance to a step-up serve should produce more firepower.

Korda has to answer three more questions: Can he learn to play defense almost as effectively as Djokovic, Nadal, Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Rublev, and Auger-Aliassime? Can he beat the best players, the heavyweights — considering his best wins in 2021 came against middleweights No. 9 Diego Schwartzman, No. 10 Roberto Bautista Agut, and No. 15 Alex De Minaur? And can he improve his No. 18 Under Pressure rating, particularly his low 47.6% of tiebreakers won?

Korda will resoundingly dispel these doubts in 2022 and reach a major final.

Carlos Alcaraz   -  Getty Images

 

Carlos Alcaraz

PROS: “This kid is going to be great. It’s just a matter of when,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone when 18-year-old Alcaraz upset Berrettini 6-1, 6-7, 7-6 at the Vienna Open. Former world No. 1 Jim Courier, who agrees with Annacone, said, “I bet a teenager will win a major in the next ten years. And it could be Alcaraz. He’s on a rocket ride to the top.”

But why does the 6'1" Spaniard, who skyrocketed to No. 32 this season and became the youngest man to reach the US Open quarterfinals in the Open Era, possess such lofty potential? “In big moments, his goal is to rip it and come in [to net],” said Annacone. “That’s a great attribute.”

After Alcaraz upset No. 3 Tsitsipas 7-6 in the fifth set at the US Open, the thoroughly impressed Greek said, “I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard.” Indeed, Alcaraz’s rocket forehand peaked for a clutch 168 kmph (104.4 mph) winner during the deciding set tiebreaker against Berrettini. Equally impressive, the robust teenager blasted 220 km (136.7 mph) and 218 km (135.5 mph) first serves at the recent Next Gen ATP Finals.

You’re right if this kid reminds you of the teenaged Rafael Nadal, his boyhood idol. Except for Rafa’s left-handedness, they’re both blazing fast, solid in every stroke department, dazzling shot-makers who are fun to watch, superb high-energy athletes, and above all, ferocious competitors.

The final similarity is their rugged, muscular physiques. Listed as 159 pounds in the 2021 ATP Media Guide, Alcaraz looks 20 pounds heavier than a year ago. Juanjo Moreno, his physio and rehab specialist, explained “The Foundations & Secrets Behind Alcaraz’s Success,” in an ATPTour.com interview.

“When he started at the [Equelite de Villena] Academy [in Alicante, Spain], both the fitness coach [Alberto Lledo] and I thought we needed a change in the muscle structures,” Moreno said. “We needed to work on his musculoskeletal system to give him more speed, more power in his shots and his movement on court. And we based all that on morphology training. By doing fitness work to achieve those goals without him gaining much muscle mass, Carlos’ genetics plus speed-based training has given him the morphotype he has now.”

CONS: The only significant weakness is shot selection. Occasionally, Alcaraz’s youthful exuberance induces him to overhit shots, and his inexperience causes him to underhit — particularly on return of serve and with injudicious drop shots. Both tactical mistakes should be easy to remedy under the astute coaching of former No. 1 Carlos Ferrero.

Winning the big points, especially when they feature gruelling rallies, is the trademark of champions. “It is something I am working on,” Alcaraz said after capturing the Next Gen ATP Finals. “Juan Carlos told me that in the tough moments you have to play aggressively and you have to go for it and that is what I do. I am working on that to be calm in the tough moments. That is the key to winning the tough points. You have to go for it.”

This pundit predicts the raging bull from Spain will run roughshod over his elders and become the first male teenager to capture a Grand Slam title since Nadal won the 2005 French Open.

Will King Novak be acclaimed as the indisputable greatest player of all time? Or will young challengers, or perhaps even comebacking legends Nadal and Federer, dethrone him? To divine the coming year of exciting uncertainty, Benjamin Disraeli offered a timeless answer: “What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens.”

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