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By and large, 2021 hasn’t been the year many had hoped for. It’s been a tough slog and our resolve has been tested on umpteen occasions.

Tennis players, and in particular, Australian tennis players, likely feel the same.

Australia’s strict border and quarantine laws, in conjunction with the extraordinarily large cost of returning home, have meant that most Aussie players have stayed on tour for longer than they’d prefer.

John Millman for example has repeatedly cited the fact that he has been away from home since prior to the Australian Open. That’s 9 long months on the road. Few sports require that level of commitment and sacrifice.

Sure, these players are lucky to be able to do what they do, but that doesn’t diminish the challenges of life on the road, living out of a suitcase, away from loved ones, grinding away seven days a week for months on end. If anything, it amplifies the challenge.

And while our Aussie contingent has indeed endured the brutality of tour life, they’ve given us so much to be proud of.

Here, we seek to acknowledge a small selection of some of our heroes on tour this year.

Unsurprisingly, it has been our golden girl Ash Barty who has led the way this year.

Ash, who has recently returned home to Australia, spent the entire season as world number 1 and picked up titles in Cincinnati, Stuttgart (where she also won the doubles with American Jennifer Brady), Miami, The Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne and, as we all remember, at Wimbledon in her Evonne Goolagong Cawley inspired outfit.

Showcasing her dominance, Ash went 42-8 for the year and rarely looked the lesser player. As a reward for her efforts, later this month Ash will become the first woman since Serena Williams (2005) to notch 100 weeks as world number 1.

Similarly, Ajla Tomljanovic has enjoyed a wonderful year rising to number 43 in the rankings. She too enjoyed a great week at Wimbledon with a quarter-final run (stopped only by her fellow Aussie), as well as a huge win over Spaniard Garbine Muguruza en route to the round of 16 at Indian Wells last week among her 27 wins to date this season.

Not to be outdone, tour veteran Sam Stosur has stormed back into form on the doubles court in the latter part of the season. Despite getting off to a slow start, Stosur and partner Shuai Zhang put together an eleven-match winning streak to win the US Open and Cincinnati Masters in an unstoppable month of tennis.

Stosur now occupies the 22nd spot in the doubles rankings – a terrific achievement for the 37-year-old.

This week’s feature guest on The First Serve, Storm Sanders also had a career-best season in 2021.

Sanders began the year ranked 282 in singles, and 65th in doubles had already has climbed to 124th and 32nd. The Queenslander has put together records of 25/14 and 28/12 respectively. Her highlights on the doubles court have included quarter-finals at the US Open and the Olympics (with Barty), as well as semi-finals at Wimbledon and the Prague Open. Meanwhile, on the singles court, Sanders made the quarter-finals of the Chicago WTA125, Prague WTA250, and at the Adelaide International.

We at The First Serve suspect that the gap between those singles and doubles rankings will come awfully close together in 2022; especially when the rankings soon return to a traditional 52 week year.

Ellen Perez also had another strong year on the doubles court in particular maintaining her status as a top 50 player with a current ranking of 44 in the paired game and is knocking on the door of the top 200 in singles.

Elsewhere on the WTA Tour, young Olivia Gadecki has moved to within reach of the top 200, despite beginning the year unranked and has proved to be a dominant force on the ITF circuit. Similarly, Maddy Inglis and Astra Sharma both hover just outside the top 100 after another consistent year on tour.

On the men’s side, Alex de Minaur has successfully maintained his ranking in the top 30 on tour. The young Aussie has experienced an up and down year, particularly after contracting COVID-19 but returned with some of his best tennis this week at Indian Wells with a scintillating match against Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas showcasing his best tennis again. Notwithstanding his challenges, de Minaur has won titles in Antalya and in Eastbourne and reached a career-high of world number 15. Expect big things next year.

James Duckworth is another Aussie who has enjoyed a career-best season after breaking into the top 100 and currently occupying number 55 in the rankings. The New South Welshman made the third round at Wimbledon, reached a first ATP Tour level final at Nur-Sultan, reached the round of 16 at the Toronto Masters, and has had consistent success at challenger level to drive his ranking on the cusp of the top 50. Like Sanders, look for Duckworth’s rankings to rise further when the ranking system returns to its traditional format.

Doubles specialist and tour veteran John Peers has had a wonderful year on tour and collected a few additions to his trophy cabinet. The Victorian not only won Indian Wells with partner Filip Polasek but also made the semi-finals of the US Open and finished runners-up in San Diego. Prior to partnering Polasek, Peers and former partner Michael Venus reached the semi-finals at the Rome Masters and won the Geneva 250 event. He and American Reilly Opelka also finished runners-up at Queens Club. Off the tour, Peers, and Barty also won Bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in the mixed doubles, representing the green and gold with great pride.

Elsewhere, Jordan Thomson, John Millman, and Alexi Popyrin have all had strong years with varying success and remain entrenched in the top 100 of the men’s game.

In the next bracket down, it has been great to see both Max Purcell and Thanasi Kokkinakis bringing their rankings into the top 200 and playing consistent tennis. While increasing his singles ranking with some big wins, Purcell has also managed to solidify his status as a world-class doubles player and maintain a top 30 doubles ranking Both look primed for break-out years (or in Kokkinakis’ case, a second break-out year) in 2022.

Lastly, keep an eye out for one of The First Serve’s favourites in Li Tu. The previously unranked South Australian has managed to dominate the ITF tour and has risen into the top 700 of the rankings in a matter of weeks. Undoubtedly, Tu will continue his rise into next year.

While this article provides a non-exhaustive list of Australians who have enjoyed great success on tour this year, we are proud of each and every player on tour and hope they continue to enjoy sustained success at each level of tour life and finish the year strongly. After all, we all wish we could play half as well as they can.

Listen to The First Serve with Brett Phillips each Monday at 8pm AEDT on 1116AM SEN Melbourne, 1629AM SEN SA / 1170am Sydney or listen live and catch up on the SEN App.

John Peers and Storm Sanders will join Brett Phillips in this weeks episode.

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