The nine intriguing tennis questions of 2022

The tennis world has had an eventful start to the year. What is on everybody’s mind for the season ahead?

Test of character: For the tournaments that follow the Australian Open’s example, will Novak Djokovic abide by the law? Or will he just not play and thus ruin his chances of rebuilding his reputation and achieving the GOAT status he yearns for?   -  Getty Images

Will No-vax Djokovic sabotage the rest of his season and perhaps even his career?

Novak Djokovic is a man of many contradictions. A health and fitness fanatic, Djokovic has, for nearly two years, flouted Covid protocol. During tennis’ pandemic lockdown in June 2020, he staged exhibition matches in Serbia and Croatia that would infect Djokovic, his wife, and several ATP players. Too often Djokovic failed to wear face masks, most recently last December in public after testing positive. Most reckless of all, he has adamantly refused to get vaccinated.

Unlike Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the Serb often talked about breaking records, especially for winning the most Grand Slam titles, and making tennis history. Now, history will judge him not only for his brilliant athletic success but also for his dangerous blunders during an existential crisis.

Finally, Djokovic is widely admired for his philanthropy. He donated a million euros each to Serbian and Italian hospitals to combat Covid. His own foundation funds early childhood education for disadvantaged kids. Jelena, his wife and the foundation’s national director, wrote, “Young people are our future: children; toddlers; newborns. Investing in them is investing in the reality of our future.” Yet Novak’s unconscionable anti-vaccination position sets a poor example for children and threatens their future.

Four days before Djokovic’s visa was cancelled on public interest grounds and he was deported from Australia, all-time great Martina Navratilova cogently summed up the moral issue. “The bottom line is, sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what’s good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers,” Navratilova said. “You have two choices, get vaccinated or just don’t go play.”

These two choices present several stark questions. Which countries will embrace and enforce the “no man is above the law” stance that Australia wisely took? A new French law, which requires foreigners to be vaccinated, will apply to anyone who wants to play at Roland Garros in May. And for those tournaments that follow the Australian Open’s example, will Djokovic abide by the law? Or will he just not play and thus ruin his chances of rebuilding his reputation and achieving the GOAT status he yearns for?

As for the Australian Open, a Grand Slam tournament that No. 1-ranked Djokovic has won a record nine times, Nadal rightly said, “There is no one player in history that’s more important than an event, no? The players stay and then go, and other players are coming. Before Roger, Novak, and myself, Bjorn Borg, who was amazing during his time. Tennis keeps going. The Australian Open is much more important than any player.”

Will the GOAT debate be settled in 2022?

You can’t win if you don’t play.

Djokovic’s self-inflicted deportation on the day before the Australian Open prevented him from competing for a record-extending 10th AO title and a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title. It also left a gaping hole at the top of the draw. Nadal capitalised on Djokovic’s absence by capturing his 21st major with a thrilling 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 comeback victory over Daniil Medvedev in a grueling 5-hour, 24-minute final.

Djokovic, who was favoured to win his 21st Grand Slam title and break his three-way tie with Nadal and Federer at 20 majors, now finds himself trailing Nadal. The Serb may be a year younger than the Spaniard, but Nadal, who didn’t even reach a major final last year, is clearly rejuvenated by his sensational fortnight in Melbourne.

Now Nadal becomes an even more solid favourite to seize his mind-boggling 14th French Open title and 22nd major. What’s more, the Spanish maestro has a chance to pull off a rare Grand Slam this year, a feat Djokovic fell just one match short of achieving at the 2021 U.S. Open.

What a difference the recent Aussie Open made! Before it many tennis cognoscenti, such as retired superstar Pete Sampras, gave the edge in the GOAT debate to Djokovic. When the Serb broke the record he shared with Sampras by finishing 2021 ranked No. 1 for the seventh time, Sampras said, “Seven years, for him, I’m sure he sees it as a bonus to all the majors that he’s won.… He did it at a time when he dominated two of the greats, in Roger and Rafa, and he handled the next generation of players very well — all at the same time. I do think what Novak’s done over the past 10 years, winning the majors, being consistent, finishing No. 1 for seven years, to me it’s a clear sign that he is the greatest of all time.”

Even then, supporters of Nadal for GOAT disagreed. They rightly pointed out that Rafa’s 2008 Olympics gold medal — which Novak and Roger never won — is worth as much as a major title. Meanwhile, fervent Fed fans highlighted his record eight titles at Wimbledon, the most prestigious major, along with his record six ATP Finals.

Countering those claims, Djokovic partisans referenced his record 37 Masters 1000 titles and record seven year-end No. 1 rankings. Another all-time record showed Djokovic’s all-surface versatility—he’s the only Big Three player to capture all nine Masters 1000 events.

Federer is still recovering from knee surgery, so it’s unlikely he, at age 40 and far from “match tough,” can contend for, let alone win, another major. Hence, the new Big Three includes the redoubtable Medvedev.

If Djokovic rebounds strongly, he’ll rate as the favourite at Wimbledon, which he’s won six times, and perhaps also at the U.S. Open. If Nadal manages to stave off Djokovic, Medvedev, and other New Gen contenders, such as Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime, and wins another Grand Slam event this year, even the staunchest Djokovic loyalists will concede the GOAT accolade — at least for 2022.

How inconceivable were any of these scenarios 20 years ago when Sampras set a seemingly unbreakable record with his 14th Grand Slam title!

Who will form the next great rivalry?

The Big Three actually treated us to three terrific rivalries during the past 15 years. Djokovic rules these rivalries with a 30-28 edge over Nadal and 27-23 over Federer, while Nadal leads Federer 24-16. The Djokovic-Nadal rivalry, probably the best one, could give us one last, great match in 2022, just as Sampras and Agassi did in their unforgettable 2002 U.S. Open final. But both Novak, 34, and Rafa, 35, are much too old to create a new rivalry with a New Gen star.

While a great rivalry featuring exciting and, preferably, contrasting superstars takes a few years to develop, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev are off to a good start. The 25-year-old Russian, the reigning U.S. Open champion, and the 24-year-old German, the 2020 Olympic gold medallist, have split their 12 matches. No. 2-ranked Medvedev won five straight times before No. 3 Zverev rebounded to prevail 6-4, 6-4 in the final of the ATP Finals last November. Surprisingly, they’ve never duelled at a major. That will likely change this year.

Even-steven: While a great rivalry featuring exciting and, preferably, contrasting superstars takes a few years to develop, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev are off to a good start. The 25-year-old Russian, the reigning US Open champion, and the 24-year-old German, the 2020 Olympic gold medallist, have split their 12 matches.   -  Getty Images

 

If you prefer the next Next Gen, then an entertaining rivalry could eventually emerge from 21-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, 20-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner, and 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz. But that won’t happen in 2022.

On the women’s side, this pundit would love to see power hitter Naomi Osaka face off against the athletic and tactical Ashleigh Barty in major finals. Not only do their playing styles and personalities sharply contrast, but both are immensely popular and respected. In addition, fans can relate to both women as being vulnerable. Burned out as a teenager, Barty took an 18-month sabbatical from the sport to regain her love of tennis. It paid off as the upbeat Aussie recently grabbed her third major title at her home Slam. Similarly, Osaka’s well-publicised bouts of anxiety and depression forced her to take a mental health break from competition last year.

How much will tennis suffer if Fed, Serena, and Venus all retire?

Probably less than we think. Sadly, even if 40-year-old Roger Federer is healthy enough to return for his 22nd and likely last Wimbledon, he won’t go far there or anywhere else. He’s simply too old, too injured, and too rusty. We should consider ourselves lucky, though, because no men’s champion defied Father Time better and longer than The Mighty Fed. And none was more popular, even beloved. In 2021, for an astounding 19th straight year, Roger Federer was voted the winner of the ATP Fans’ Favourite award.

Favourite forever: Even if 40-year-old Roger Federer is healthy enough to return for his 22nd and likely last Wimbledon, he won’t go far there or anywhere else. We should consider ourselves lucky, though, because no men’s champion defied Father Time better and longer than The Mighty Fed. And none was more popular, even beloved. In 2021, for an astounding 19th straight year, Roger Federer was voted the winner of the ATP Fans’ Favourite award.   -  AP

 

The same greatness and longevity hold true for sometimes-controversial Serena Williams, also 40. Her 10 Grand Slam singles titles after reaching age 30 is an “oldest” record that may never be broken. Serena hasn’t won a major since the 2017 Australian Open when she was eight weeks pregnant. Her ranking has plummeted to 47, and she last competed at the 2021 Wimbledon where she retired from her first-round match with an injury.

Venus Williams, the senior citizen of the trio at 41, is starting — believe it or not — her 28th year on the pro tour. Ranked a lowly No. 307, Venus will have to qualify for tournament main draws, unless she receives wild cards.

In the past five years, we’ve learned to live without the Williams sisters at or near the top of the sport. Simona Halep filled the void in 2017-18, and then Osaka and Barty blossomed to capture four and three Grand Slam titles, respectively. Teenage stars Bianca Andreescu, Iga Swiatek, and especially Emma Raducanu at the 2021 U.S. Open, also captivated fans with their exciting, versatile games when they won majors.

As 20th-century legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert wound down their careers and retired, their departures had much less impact than expected. Steffi Graf and Monica Seles not only proved wonderful successors but also quickly created a riveting rivalry of their own.

That best-case scenario may not happen soon on the men’s side, but who knows? It took only two years after the end of the Sampras-Agassi rivalry for Federer and Nadal to start a compelling rivalry.

Tall ambition: Thanks to his explosive first serve, Reilly Opelka, 24, has a puncher’s chance against anyone. Opelka is also very fast for an athlete a shade under seven feet tall and has improved his forehand. But the jury is still out about his consistency, stamina, and mental toughness.   -  REUTERS

 

Will the U.S. finally produce a men’s champion?

It seems unfathomable that the tennis superpower that produced “Big Bill” Tilden, voted the world’s best player from 1900 to 1950 in an Associated Press poll, and then a succession of all-time greats — Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras — has suffered a historic drought. An American man hasn’t won a Grand Slam title or ranked No. 1 since Andy Roddick captured his only major 18 years ago at the U.S. Open. The downward trend worsened this decade with no one even making the singles top-20 in the year-end 2021 rankings. The retirement of American superstars Bob and Mike Bryan two years ago also left a massive void in doubles.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, there’s a lot of things we have to improve and evolve along the way,” Martin Blackman, the USTA’s general manager for player development since 2015, told USA Today. “But I think that’s coming to fruition.”

Frances Tiafoe, a 23-year-old American who ranks No. 38, is even more optimistic, despite making just one major quarterfinal in his five-year career. “I think American tennis is in a great spot right now.” Tiafoe has the requisite athleticism, competitiveness, and potent serve, but his backhand and volley break down under pressure.

Jenson Brooksby, voted the ATP Newcomer of the Year, shot up from No. 307 to No. 56. Brooksby confounds opponents with his unpredictable shot selection, but his serve is ordinary, his two-handed backhand volley is unsound, and his groundstrokes lack topspin. His unconventional game is fun to watch, but he doesn’t have the firepower to crack the top-5. Currently ranked No. 22, Taylor Fritz has bettered his ranking for seven straight years and boasts service power and an admirable work ethic. With continuing improvement in his forehand, transition game, and defence, Fritz will likely keep rising, but he also doesn’t have top-5 potential.

Thanks to his explosive first serve, Reilly Opelka, 24, has a puncher’s chance against anyone. Opelka is also very fast for an athlete a shade under seven feet tall and has improved his forehand. But the jury is still out about his consistency, stamina, and mental toughness. Maxime Cressy, also 24, has intrigued observers with his throwback serve-and-volley style, reaching the Aussie Open fourth round and rising to No. 59. If he solidifies his groundstrokes, he could crack the top-20.

The best bet is 21-year-old Sebastian Korda, whose father-coach Petr captured the 1998 Australian Open. “I’m trying to think of another American in recent years who makes it look so easy,” raved former No. 1 Jim Courier. “The way he moves and generates power, it looks effortless. Where is the weakness in Korda’s game? He’s been so impressive.” Mostly true, but the No. 40-ranked Korda needs a bigger serve and better defence. Last year, he won only three matches at the majors and beat no top-8 players. He might win a major, but it won’t happen in 2022.

(The USA’s tennis plight is hardly confined to the men. Only one American woman, No. 10 Danielle Collins, ranks in the world top-15.)

Spanish rule: Carlos Alcaraz, just 18, belts serves over 130 mph and forehands over 100 mph. He’s ready to beat the biggest names in the late rounds at the biggest tournaments.   -  Getty Images

 

Which teenagers will break through in 2022?

Aside from Carlos Alcaraz and Coco Gauff, two can’t-miss, future stars, several others should emerge and upset top-20, or even top-10 players.

Clara Tauson, a 6’ power hitter from Denmark, captured three small tournaments in 2021 and, at the 2022 Aussie Open, knocked off No. 6 seed Anett Kontaveit 6-2, 6-4 before finalist Danielle Collins barely beat her 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk, 19, reached three WTA semifinals last season and demolished Raducanu 6-1, 6-2 at the Transylvania Open in Romania.

Kristen Scott, a hard-hitting, 17-year-old American lefty, pulled off a rare double at the 2021 U.S. Open, winning the girls’ singles and the doubles with Ashlyn Krueger.

The youngest prospect is Linda Fruhvirtova, a little-known, 16-year-old Czech. Fruhvirtova, ranked No. 280, used her superb strokes to upset No. 56 Alize Cornet at Charleston. Linda’s younger sister also boasts excellent potential. At age 13, Brenda scored a stunning 7-6, 6-1 upset over No. 54 Katerina Siniakova at a Czech exhibition tournament in July 2020.

Holger Rune, a Danish 18-year-old ranked No. 102, notched eight top-100 victories in his rookie year, the best over No. 24 Lorenzo Sonego. Almost as impressively, he took a set off Djokovic at the U.S. Open.

Dominic Stricker, a 19-year-old Swiss lefty, also showed he could compete with the big boys last year. On clay at Geneva, Stricker upset No. 44 Marton Fucsovics and No. 46 Marin Cilic; and on grass at Stuttgart, he eliminated No. 89 Radu Albot and No. 20 Hubert Hurkacz — all in straight sets. Dominic’s 14-5 tiebreaker record bodes well for future high-pressure matches.

Will either Naomi Osaka or Ashleigh Barty complete a career Grand Slam?

Career Grand Slams are fairly rare. Aside from the Big Three, the last man to pull it off was Agassi in 2003. Sampras, Lendl, McEnroe, Connors, and Borg never did it. Among the women greats, Monica Seles, Justine Henin, and Evonne Goolagong weren’t versatile enough to achieve it.

Osaka faces a much tougher challenge than Barty. All four of her major titles — two apiece at the U.S. Open and Australian Open — have come on hard courts. That leaves grass and clay, two highly specialised surfaces that require a diverse repertoire of shots and skills.

If past performance is an indicator, Osaka has almost no chance to win either Wimbledon or the French Open this year. Even though her powerful serve and groundstrokes should pay dividends on grass, she has a mediocre volley and no slice backhand; hence her awful 4-3 Wimbledon career record. Not surprisingly, Osaka’s one-dimensional power game hasn’t fared much better at the French Open, where she’s just 7-5.

All-rounder: Ashleigh Barty, who won the 2019 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon, moved closer to securing a career slam by taking the Australian Open without losing a set. Barty possesses the game, tactics, and confidence to complete the career Slam at the US Open.   -  Getty Images

 

Barty, who won the 2019 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon, moved closer by taking the Australian Open without losing a set. Ash possesses the game, tactics, and confidence to complete the career Slam at the U.S. Open.

“I love watching Barty play,” said former world No. 4 Mary Joe Fernandez. “She can hit the slice, she can come in [to net], she can serve and volley. She uses the whole court. She reminds me of Justine Henin.”

Barty should draw inspiration from the Belgian. Both are under 5’6”, terrific athletes, potent servers, adroit volleyers, and outstanding competitors. Henin racked up three of her seven major titles on hard courts, and Barty could definitely match that success.

Which one-time women’s Grand Slam champions in the past five years have the best chance of winning a second major?

Since Serena captured her 23rd and last Grand Slam crown exactly five years ago, a stunning 14 women have capitalised on the parity to grab major titles and an Olympics gold medal. Some were underachieving veterans like Barbora Krejcikova, while others rebounded from injuries like Sloane Stephens, and still others were precocious teens like Raducanu.

Let’s review this cast of surprise champions and see who will be remembered as “one-Slam wonders” and who are destined to make more history.

Jelena Ostapenko started the post-Serena era with a barrage of booming groundstrokes at the 2017 French Open. So many landed just inside the sidelines and baseline for winners that the unheralded, 20-year-old Latvian became the lowest-ranked player (No. 47) and first unseeded player to capture Roland Garros in the Open Era. Alas, Ostapenko has gone from feast to famine with a dismal 9-10 match record in the past three years at the majors. Overweight and error-prone at 24, she has no chance of even reaching Grand Slam finals.

Sidelined for 11 months and with her foot in a protective boot following surgery, Stephens returned with renewed passion in the summer of 2017. Ranked No. 957 on July 31, Stephens suddenly surged to the semis at Toronto and Cincinnati and then all the way to the final at Flushing Meadows where she routed Madison Keyes. Lamentably, the moody, 28-year-old American often wastes her vast talent with indifferent play. The odds remain very slim that Stephens will win another major.

In retrospect, Andreescu’s meteoric rise from No. 178 to U.S. Open champion in 2019 seemed unlikely at best. A torn shoulder rotator cuff sidelined Andreescu for two months, but winning Indian Wells and Toronto showed her rapid progress. At Flushing Meadows, the poised, 19-year-old Canadian pounded her topspin forehand and bedeviled opponents, especially Serena in the lopsided final, with a wide array of shots. Andreescu sat out the first pandemic year of 2020 and struggled in 2021, winning just four Grand Slam matches and dropping to No. 46. When healthy and match-tough, she’s a threat to capture any major.

Overlooked and undervalued, 35-1 longshot Sofia Kenin grabbed the last pre-pandemic major, the 2020 Australian Open. She proved it was no fluke by reaching the final at the postponed French Open eight months later. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old American, an intense competitor with rock-solid strokes, simply lacks the huge weapons and elite athleticism to take another Grand Slam title. After losing in the Australian Open first round, her ranking plummeted to 95.

As dominant as she was surprising at the 2020 French Open, 54th-ranked Iga Swiatek dropped just 28 games in seven matches to win her first major.

A strong first serve, wicked topspin forehand, close baseline positioning, and smart shot selection were the 19-year-old Pole’s best attributes. The only woman to reach at least the fourth round at every major in 2021 and 2022, she ranks a career-high No. 4. Swiatek should capture another major or two with another French title her best bet.

Krejcikova, a doubles star, finally came into her own in singles at the 2021 French Open. The 25-year-old Czech, a 125-1 longshot, lucked out as only one top-15 player made the quarters. Inspired by her late mentor, Jana Novotna, she outlasted overweight, 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a lacklustre 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 final. If Krejcikova adds power to high-percentage game, another major title is possible.

made for more: Stylish strokes, natural athleticism, and a relentless will to win ensure Emma Raducanu will win more majors.   -  Getty Images

 

The youngest and most captivating of the one-time major champions, 18-year-old Raducanu, shocked everyone, including herself, at the 2021 U.S. Open. The Canadian qualifier, a 100-1 longshot, upset Bencic, 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari, and then another teenage giant-killer, Leylah Fernandez, in the final, all in straight sets. Since then, however, she slumped with a 3-5 match record. Stylish strokes, natural athleticism, and a relentless will to win ensure she’ll win more majors. How many will partly depend on how well she handles the enormous pressure from fame, fortune, and inevitable tournament setbacks all young stars face.

Will an ATP player or a WTA player win their first major title?

Seventeen years after 19-year-old Nadal, sporting pirate pants and sleeveless shirts, captured his first major at the French Open, another swashbuckling Spaniard teenager could emulate Rafa’s feat. With a similar rugged, 6’1” physique and fist-pumping, “Vamos!”-shouting persona, Carlos Alcaraz, just 18, belts serves over 130 mph and forehands over 100 mph. He’s ready to beat the biggest names in the late rounds at the biggest tournaments.

Another fearless power hitter, albeit with less flair, Italy’s 20-year-old Jannik Sinner could also overtake both the Big Three and the Next Gen. If the remarkably calm No. 11 Sinner adds more shot variety and net approaches, he’ll take his game to new heights.

Future champion: If Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan improves last year’s woeful 6-13 tiebreaker record, she has a legitimate chance to win her first major, on either hard courts or grass.   -  Getty Images

 

The safest bet, though, is Zverev. The steadily improving, 6’6” German has the power game and an improved defence. He won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, beating Djokovic in the semifinals, made the U.S. Open semifinals, and defeated Djokovic and Medvedev to capture his second ATP Finals. His late 2021 momentum was lost, however, when he suffered a stunning 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 Australian Open fourth-round loss to Denis Shapovalov.

My women’s pick to click is No. 13 Elena Rybakina, a broad-shouldered, six-footer from Kazakhstan. The composed, 22-year-old Rybakina resembles the pure-stroking, hard-hitting Maria Sharapova. If she improves last year’s woeful 6-13 tiebreaker record, she has a legitimate chance to win her first major, on either hard courts or grass.

Late-blooming Anett Kontaveit, a 26-year-old Estonian, used a late-season surge to zoom to a career-high No. 7. After the U.S. Open, she won tournaments at Ostrava, Moscow, and Cluj-Napoca (Romania), and reached the final of the WTA Finals. The Baltic Blaster scored big wins over Krejcikova (twice), Pliskova (twice), Sakkari (twice), Muguruza, Bencic, Halep, and fast-rising Paula Badosa. Kontaveit is more than ready to go all the way at a major.

Sorry, fans of the explosive-hitting but emotionally fragile Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarussian world No. 2 is just too wild and inconsistent on the big points, especially on her serve. At Melbourne, Sabalenka self-destructed once again with 15 double faults in her 5-7, 6-2, 7-6 (10-7) loss to No. 115-ranked Kaia Kanepi.

The legion of Coco Gauff followers will be tantalised as the 17-year American prodigy comes oh-so-close, making her first major final. As diehard Brooklyn Dodger baseball fans used to say, “Wait ’til next year.”

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