2022 was a truly historic year in tennis. In the men’s game, both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic broke their previous three-way tie with Roger Federer on 20 Majors to move to 22 and 21 Major victories respectively. Perhaps even more importantly, a new Major-winner – indeed, a new world #1 – emerged in Carlos Alcaraz and Federer, arguably the greatest Major-winner of them all (at least aesthetically), finally retired from the sport.
In the women’s game, there were also significant arrivals and departures, with Iga Świątek replacing the retiring Ash Barty as the dominant world #1, and Ons Jabeur and Caroline Garcia serving notice that they might be capable of winning Majors in 2023. In addition, Elena Rybakina became perhaps the least heralded Wimbledon winner of all time, as the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarussian players, in the wake of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent retaliation by the ATP and WTA meant that she did not gain the ranking points that she deserved. As Rybakina herself admitted later in the year, it sometimes felt as if she had not won Wimbledon at all. But she did, and in thrilling fashion.
Here, then, are ten terrific things in tennis in 2022, starting right at the top.
Ten Terrific Things in Tennis
- The Real and Remarkable Arrival of Carlos Alcaraz
Carlos Alcaraz had a pretty good 2021, culminating in his run to the quarterfinals at the US Open. However, his 2022 was almost literally off the charts, culminating in his winning the US Open and becoming the youngest ever world #1, all while he was still a teenager. As the era of the Big Three finally came to an end with Roger Federer’s retirement, it seemed that a Gigantic One might have emerged in their wake.
That was especially true given that Alcaraz seemed to be a combination of the very best attributes of the Big Three: Federer’s flair; Nadal’s competitiveness; and Djokovic’s resilience. Although many other young male players also came to the fore in 2022 (and two in particular also make this list), there was no doubt that Alcaraz was a (young) man apart. After winning his first Major in New York, his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, was asked how many Majors he might eventually win and Ferrero joked, “Thirty!” Like all the best jokes, it might just contain a kernel of truth.
- Roger Federer Receiving The Farewell From Tennis That He Deserved
The only unremarkable part of Roger Federer’s career was the ending of it, as he finally seemed to succumb to all the injuries that he had previously avoided throughout the rest of his career. From the Australian Open at the start of 2020 onwards (so, from before the start of the pandemic), Federer almost seemed to limp towards the finishing line, as he either didn’t play at all or suffered the type of devastating defeat that would have been unthinkable before. Worst of all was his bagelling in the third set of his Wimbledon 2021 quarterfinal defeat to Hubert Hurkacz.
Finally, however, after nearly three whole seasons of starting and then stopping again almost immediately, Federer finally realised the inevitable: that he could no longer play at the Godlike level that he had played at for almost all of his career. He received the Wimbledon sign-off that he deserved when he was by far the most feted of former Champions who celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Centre Court in July. Then, at the end of the summer, his farewell from tennis was formalised when he played his last ever tournament, the Laver Cup (which he and his management team had created).
Nadal and Djokovic have now won more Majors than Federer, but neither of them elicited the testimonials that Federer did for his unique and apparently effortless style, from David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable description of his “liquid whip of a forehand” to Paul Annacone, his former coach, calling him “Picasso with a tennis racket”. For once, these seemingly hyperbolic declarations of a player’s greatness were, if anything, understatements.
- Rafael Nadal’s Record-Breaking Start To The Year
Before Federer retired, he lost his place at the peak of men’s tennis, which had once seemed unassailable, and not just to one man but two. However, if Novak Djokovic’s seventh Wimbledon win was relatively routine, Rafael Nadal’s double-Major-winning start to 2022 was extraordinary. Indeed, after he had fought back from two sets down to Daniil Medvedev to win the Australian Open Final and then defeated Djokovic en route to reclaiming his French Open title (making it 14 Roland Garros titles in total), it even seemed possible that he might make a tilt at the Calendar Slam.
Like Djokovic in 2021, he came close. Indeed, he reached the semifinals at Wimbledon, after yet another epic triumph over Taylor Fritz in the quarterfinals. However, he was ultimately unable to play in the last four, because of injury, granting Nick Kyrgios a bye to the final. And in New York, Nadal was the palest shadow of himself as he relatively meekly succumbed (by his own Olympian standards) to Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round. After the retirement of his great rival Federer, Nadal admitted that a part of him had retired too. If he wins a 15th French Open in 2023, which would be one of the few sporting records that one can be confident would stand forever, the rest of him might just retire, too.
- Iga Świątek Replaces Ash Barty As A Dominant Women’s World #1
Like Federer, Serena Williams also retired in 2022. Indeed, just like Federer, she had effectively been a long time retiring, as she had won her last Major at the Australian Open in 2022, before she gave birth to her daughter. She then spent much of the next five years trying, ultimately in vain, to win a 24th Major to tie with Margaret Court as the “winningest” female tennis player ever.
In that time, various women had emerged as possible dominant No.1s to replace her, notably Naomi Osaka. However, it was only in 2022, when she finally won her home Major (the Australian Open), that Ash Barty emerged as a dominant No.1 to rival all the great players from the past who had been so dominant that they were known the world over only by their first name: Chrissie, Martina, Steffi, Monica and, above all, Serena.
However, almost as soon as she had established her dominance, Barty retired, aged only 25. Fortunately, it turns out that dominant women’s world #1s are like the proverbial London buses: you wait ages for one, and then they all come along at once. That was because Barty’s retirement was almost immediately followed by Iga Świątek rising to the top of the women’s game, as she first went on a long winning streak (37 matches in total) and then won two Majors, in Paris and New York. The only shame is that Barty retired before Świątek could really challenge her. However, if the Australian ever returned to tennis, the women’s game would potentially have a rivalry for the ages, with Ash-Iga potentially matching the greatness of the Chrissie-Martina and Steffi-Monica rivalries.
- Ons Jabeur Reaches Two Major Finals
Ons Jabeur did not win either of the two Major finals that she reached in 2022 (at Wimbledon and the US Open). However, “The Tunisian Magician” still enjoyed a remarkable year, becoming the beacon for both the Arab and African worlds as she became the first female Arab or African player (outside of South Africa) to reach one Major final, let alone two.
If, ultimately, Jabeur lacked the sheer firepower to beat either Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon or Iga Świątek in New York, that should not detract from the astonishing flair and sense of fun that she brought to the biggest tennis courts in the world. With her unique mixture of slices, drop-shots and seemingly inconceivable winners, hers was almost a throwback to the pre-Open era of women’s tennis, when skill and not power was probably the defining feature of female tennis. After two such debilitating losses in London and New York, there must be doubts that Jabeur will ever win a Major. However, what is not in doubt is her ability to take tennis to a part of the world – indeed, two parts of the world – in which it has made very little inroads before.
- Holger Rune’s Triumph At The Paris Masters
For much of 2022, it had appeared that Carlos Alcaraz had a monopoly on the impossible in men’s tennis, from winning in Rio after torrential rain made it virtually a 24-hour tournament (in which the quarterfinal, semifinal and final were all played over two days), to becoming the first man ever to beat Nadal and Djokovic at the same clay court event when he triumphed in Madrid. At the very end of the year, however, Denmark’s Holger Rune, who, like Alcaraz, is only 19, showed that he was also capable of achieving the seemingly impossible.
In the final Masters event of the season in Paris, Rune became the first man ever to beat five top ten players in the same tournament en route to winning the title. Those five included Alcaraz himself, albeit that the young Spaniard had to retire from his quarterfinal against Rune with the abdominal injury that ultimately ended his season. But there were no such caveats about Rune’s victories over Hubert Hurkacz, Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime and, most remarkably of all, Novak Djokovic in an epic three-set final. With that one transcendent tournament win, Rune possibly pushed himself to the head of the queue, ahead of Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner and several others, to become Alcaraz’s biggest rival in the years ahead.
- Daria Kasatkina Returns To The World’s Top 10
Like Ons Jabeur, Daria Kasatkina is one of the great modern artists of women’s tennis, possessing a game that is built more on skill and shot placement than sheer power. And if, like Jabeur, that may ultimately not be enough to win her a Major, then that really doesn’t matter compared to the personal and professional triumphs, against incredible odds, that she achieved in 2022.
Kasatkina had been a Junior French Open Winner in 2014 and first reached the world’s top 10 in 2018, after a run to the quarterfinals of the main draw of the French Open. What followed, however, was a gradual slide down the rankings, exacerbated by problems with her relatively weak serve: crucially, the one shot she seemed to lack was the most important shot of all.
However, after she had apparently contemplated quitting tennis completely, Kasatkina rediscovered her finest form in 2022, solved most of her serving problems and went one better at the French Open by reaching the semifinals. Coupled with her coming out as gay, which, as she admitted, was all the more difficult for a Russian player in the era of Putin, she seemed liberated both on and off the court, culminating in her reaching the end-of-year WTA Finals in Fort Worth.
- Felix Auger-Aliassime Proves Himself The King of Team Tennis
Like Daria Kasatkina, Felix Auger-Aliassime was another youthful prodigy (having won his first professional match on the Challenger Tour when he was only 14) who subsequently experienced growing pains on the senior circuit. In 2022, however, Auger-Aliassime really broke through and, again like Kasatkina in the women’s game, capped off the year by reaching the end-of-season tour finals event.
It was in team tennis that Auger-Aliassime was particularly potent, as he won all three of the biggest team tennis events in the men’s game: the ATP Cup with Canada in January; the Laver Cup in September, when his victory over Novak Djokovic was the turning-point for the Rest of the World against Europe; and, finally, the Davis Cup in November, when he played both singles and doubles and was unbeaten all week in Spain.
The challenge for F2A now is to translate that unstoppable team tennis form into individual achievements on the ATP Tour. However, he has already shown that he is capable of that by winning three indoor events in a row in Europe in the autumn/fall. Right now, he looks so revitalised that it is possible to imagine him, Holger Rune and Carlos Alcaraz eventually emerging as a new Big Three to replace the original Big Three in the future.
- Caroline Garcia Flies Again
To complete a hat-trick of unforgettable comebacks in tennis this year, after those of Kasatkina and Auger-Aliassime, France’s Caroline Garcia learned to fly again, as it were, with her trademark “aeroplane” celebration being seen all over the WTA Tour in the second half of the season, climaxing with her triumph at the WTA Finals in Texas. At one point, it seemed that Garcia would even celebrate Major success in 2022, as she reached the semifinals at the US Open. However, after demolishing home favourite Coco Gauff in the quarterfinal with tennis of such flair and verve that it even evoked memories of Federer at his best, nerves seemed to overwhelm her in the semifinal and she lost in straight sets to Ons Jabeur.
Of course, Garcia has been here before. In 2017, it had seemed that she would finally fulfil Andy Murray’s early prediction that she would rise to No.1 by winning the WTA Finals in Singapore, before gradually losing form and focus again over the next few years. Now, however, aged 29 and finally working with coaches other than her father, Garcia looks equipped to translate all her obvious ability into singles Major success (she has already won a Grand Slam Doubles event, at her home Major in Paris this year). If she does, she will finally join the long list of great female French Champions, from Suzanne Lenglen to Amelie Mauresmo.
- Elena Rybakina Wins Wimbledon
And finally, the forgotten (or almost forgotten) Major-winner of 2022 – Elena Rybakina, who stunned the tennis world in general and Ons Jabeur in particular by winning the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. Of course, the reason that she has largely been forgotten about is that she became the first ever Major-winner, male or female, not to receive a substantial rankings boost after winning their first Major. That was because the WTA, like the ATP, responded to Wimbledon’s blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian players, in the wake of the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, by removing all ranking points from the tournament.
Unlikely as it seems, in this respect Rybakina almost resembles the all-time great boxer, “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler, who was similarly unable to enjoy his first ever world title triumph to the full. In Hagler’s case, it was because his defeat of Britain’s Alan Minter in 1980 led to disappointed British fans bombarding the ring with chairs and other debris. Hagler, having not been able to enjoy his first ever world title win, enjoyed many more as he went unbeaten for the next seven years. Rybakina may never achieve that level of dominance in tennis, but if she can recover from being unfairly denied the ranking points that she had earned after winning Wimbledon, she can certainly win more Majors in the future.
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