Now that the 2022 ATP season is coming to a close, and before we start looking ahead to next year, we have a chance to take stock of what we’ve seen during this unusual year. It was one of the strangest years in recent memory, owing especially to the era of the Big 3 winding down, and punctuated by historical feats of more than one kind. Some events didn’t make the cut for brevity’s sake (like Jiri Vesely’s remarkable run in Dubai, or Juan Martin del Potro’s retirement), but here is a list of some of the biggest and strangest storylines of the year.
Biggest, Best and Strangest Storylines from the 2022 ATP Season
Djokovic Limited to Part-Time Play But Still A Force
The year started on a strange note, with the unfortunate deportation of Novak Djokovic from Australia because of his vaccination status (or lack thereof). The ban followed him to various places around the world, including the US Open, and rendered him a part-time player. This came after an incredible 2021 that saw him make a bid for the Calendar Slam, and as he stood on the brink of attaining the all-time Slams record.
He was mostly the same Djokovic this year, and managed to win Wimbledon, but his absence opened the door for the rise of Carlos Alcaraz, and the ascension of Rafael Nadal to the top of the all-time Slams list. With covid policies now changing around the world, Djokovic could potentially play a full slate next year and accomplish in 2023 what he couldn’t in 2022.
Nadal Dominant (At times)
With Djokovic unable to play, Nadal got off to an excellent start, winning his first 21 matches and taking the year’s first two Slams. It looked like his turn to attempt the Calendar Slam as he then reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, but an injury sustained in his intense quarterfinal against Taylor Fritz forced him to withdraw from the tournament. The tennis world was unfortunately deprived of what looked like it could have been the match of the year, in Nadal vs. Kyrgios, and ultimately the trend of Nadal dealing with injuries (which dates back to the end of last season as well) hindered what had started as a brilliant campaign.
Nadal enters the Paris Masters this week having gone 38-5, having won four tournaments including two Grand Slams, and yet hasn’t reached #1 again. And while Djokovic may be able to return to normalcy next year and could regain the world #1 ranking, it’s fair to wonder whether the various injuries (including a chronic foot problem) might signal the Spaniard’s imminent decline at the age of 36. But even if Nadal does decline, Spain will still have a champion, because of…
Rise of Carlos Alcaraz
While Djokovic and Nadal oscillated between being on and off court, their throne was usurped by the most exciting young prospect since either Nick Kyrgios or the Big 3 themselves. Carlos Alcaraz split head-to-heads with the Big 3, never drew Kyrgios or Daniil Medvedev, and walked through the open door that was originally marked ‘Alexander Zverev’ and ‘Stefanos Tsitsipas’, watching the former exit the tour with a mid-season injury at the height of his powers, and conquering the latter on two separate occasions this year (and once last year for good measure).
It was a bad year to be a top 10 player and a good year to be Carlos Alcaraz, as the Spaniard became the youngest world #1 in the history of tennis. The question is whether he can attain even higher heights in 2023, or whether perhaps a possible Djokovic rivalry will stand in the way.
A Resurgent Kyrgios
Most people likely did not see Kyrgios rising from the ashes, after two years of part-time play that looked like an off-ramp to an early exit for his career. But a series of stabilizing events, including partnering in doubles with fellow Aussie and friend Thanasi Kokkinakis, rejuvenated Kyrgios’ mind and his talents. The doubles partnership led to titles at the Australian Open and Atlanta (with Kyrgios taking another trophy in Washington with Jack Sock), and his renewed singles dedication led him to a 37-10 record on the year.
He also won one title (his first since 2019), and a highly-anticipated Wimbledon final where he was unfortunate enough to encounter the increasingly immovable force that is Djokovic playing on a grass court. Kyrgios rose from #93 all the way back to #20, and looks motivated to make a run in Melbourne at the start of next season (although an ugly legal issue has darkened Kyrgios’ season and could change things for next year).
The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Medvedev
The absence of the Big 3 for large portions of the season could have opened the door for Medvedev to ascend into the same stratosphere, and at first it looked like he would. Strong early-season play, including a finals appearance at the Australian Open, earned him the world #1 ranking as Djokovic began losing points that he wasn’t allowed to recover. Then Medvedev quickly lost the ranking, but also subsequently regained it, and held it despite Nadal winning two Slams and making the semis of a third.
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But a couple unfortunate Nick Kyrgios draws were too much for Medvedev, and the “Next Big 3” title was passed on to Carlos Alcaraz after the US Open. All in all it was a fairly mediocre year by Medvedev’s standards, and it’s strange that it was such a year that saw him become the first person outside the Big 4 to hit #1 in almost 20 years. But depending on how things shake out, there could be a new Big 4 in 2023: Djokovic, Nadal, Alcaraz, and Medvedev.
Of the many comebacks attempted in 2022, including Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, and Stan Wawrinka, none was more anticipated than Roger Federer’s. It was understood that such a lengthy recovery (he had stepped out after last year’s Wimbledon), and at the age of 40, signified that the end was near, and that perhaps he had one last go to entertain fans before bowing out at next year’s Wimbledon. But it was not to be. One doubles match with surprisingly-affected rival Rafa Nadal was the Swiss maestro’s swan song, and the personal emotions of his departure were so great that he was not ready to appear in Basel in 2022 for a Swiss sendoff. The world will never see Federer-Alcaraz, unfortunately, and will never again see arguably the most stylish and elegant tennis of the Open Era, as Federer closes the curtain on an incredible career.
The Instant Accession of Coric
There are returns, and then there is Borna Coric’s return. There are impressive comeback, and then there is Coric’s comeback. A Hollywood script attempting to give Coric a moment in the sun after returning from a lengthy injury would have granted him less drama and glory than he actually accomplished. The script would have looked something like Nick Kyrgios’ Wimbledon, where a dearth of players in the draw (some injured, some banned for being Russian) led Kyrgios to a quarterfinal matchup against a low-ranked clay court specialist, while the semis turned into a walkover when Nadal withdrew. The script would have then featured Djokovic in the final hampered by part-time play, with Kyrgios triumphing over the weakened draw in the end.
Perhaps somewhere a script like that was being prepared for Coric, but the Croatian grew impatient and decided to do things the hard way. From the humble ranking of world #152, Coric, who had struggled in his comeback to the tune of only four tour-level wins from January to August, then proceeded to dominate the field en route to a Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. Nadal, Musetti, Bautista Agut, Auger-Aliassime, Norrie, Tsitsipas—all dispatched. He rose 123 rankings on the strength of a single tournament, and in one fell swoop returned to his rightful place amongst the ATP’s best.
The Continued Climb of Metal-Hipped Murray
Of all the strange things to happen during the 2022 season, perhaps none is stranger than the return into the top 50 of a player with an artificial hip. Metal hips are for the elderly; they are the last-ditch efforts to stay mobile without pain, when mobility means walking the dog and carrying groceries and picking up grandchildren. Bodies that have deteriorated to the point of needing iron parts do not perform elite athletic skills against young Olympians with metal-free physiques. But that is just what Andy Murray has done.
He finally conquered the nagging complaints that had plagued the last couple years of his comeback (a comeback from pain so great he had said it hurt merely to put his shoes on), and he remained on court consistently throughout most of the year. The consistency buoyed his level, which, though not sufficient to repeat his post-surgery Antwerp performance in 2019, did see him climb back up to a high of #43 in the world, and lodge victories over human-limbed opponents of the caliber of Kyrgios, Reilly Opelka, Denis Shapovalov, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Coric returned at the age of 25, ten years Murray’s junior. Federer failed to return, despite a lack of artificial body parts. Thiem and Wawrinka—neither of whom would set off a metal detector at the airport—are still trying to come back. But Murray is back. All the way back? No. But back enough that top players groan when they see him drawn in the first or second round. And in a strange season full of strange things, where Alcaraz rises and Federer retires and Nick Kyrgios makes it to the final of a Grand Slam, it might just be Andy Murray who has accomplished the strangest thing of all. We’ve seen #1s, we’ve seen Slam champions. But we’ve never seen a metal hip in the top 50.
The end of the Big 3. Two new #1s. Metal hips performing elite athletics. The 2022 ATP season gave tennis fans more than anyone expected, and it makes one wonder what the 2023 season has in store. Could we lose another Big 3? Could Kyrgios win a Slam? Could Thiem be the next player to rise to former heights, as he finishes this season on a strong note? If 2022 has taught us anything, it is that, whatever happens, it will probably be something we didn’t see coming.
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