MID-SEASON REVIEW


Photograph: Getty Images

The 2022 tennis season thus far has provided more twists and turns than most. From a turbulent lead-in to the Australian Open, to a dominant French Open from the King of Clay Rafael Nadal and the new WTA tour queen Iga Swiatek, to the ensuing Wimbledon drama, the producers at Netflix must be thrilled with what their Drive to Survive style tennis documentary will have to offer fans in 2023.

Now at the halfway point of the season, The First Serve takes a look at some of the key storylines to emerge from the first half of 2022.

From Ash to Iga

Having taken out the Adelaide International double the week prior while losing only one set in the singles (including a dominant 6-2 6-4 win over Iga Swiatek) and in the doubles partnering good friend Storm Sanders, Melbourne Park was abuzz with hope for Aussie Ash.

And our golden girl did not disappoint. After later admitting that she considered retirement after her Wimbledon triumph, Ash had unfinished business at Melbourne Park.

The Queenslander was hardly challenged as she sliced and diced her way into the final against American Danielle Collins.

Facing a third set after being broken twice to trail 1-5 in the second, the subsequent final half-hour will forever remain in the psyche of Australian tennis fans as Ash sealed her historic Australian Open crown with a running cross-court forehand to down the gallant American 6-3 7-6(3).

With her third grand slam title across as many surfaces, the question quickly became how many more could she win? After all, Ash’s game was as close to perfect as had been seen in recent memory.

Then, following her shock retirement, fans were left to ask who would take up the mantle as world number 1?

Enter, Iga Swiatek. The Nadal-loving Polish superstar who burst onto the scene winning the 2020 French Open as a twenty-year-old without dropping a set roared to life. At the time of Ash’s retirement, Swiatek was ranked second yet was a huge 2200 points adrift of Ash on 5776 points. Now, only two months later, Iga sits atop the rankings on 8631 points and has double the points of second-ranked Estonian Anett Kontaveit.

Swiatek is enjoying a 35-match win steak (the best since Venus Williams in 2000) having won the Qatar Open, Indian Wells Masters, Miami Masters, Stuttgart Open, Rome International, and the French Open in her last six starts. Astonishingly, Swiatek has only lost four sets in those 35 wins.

One can only wonder what would happen if Swiatek and our Ash ran into each other at Wimbledon this year.

Is the GOAT race over?

No. But if the world stopped turning today. Rafa would be the man. Without doubt.

Leading into the Australian Open the world was obsessed with Novak’s vaccination status. With Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic all locked on 20 grand slams following Novak’s near calendar grand slam in 2021, reasonable minds concluded that surely Novak would get the jab in spite of his principles (or a lawful exemption) in a bid to win a record-extending tenth Australian Open and take the lead in the grand slam tally.

How wrong we were.

Seizing his opportunity, Nadal then went on to win what may be the very best of his now 22 grand slams. After over six months without playing competitive tennis, Nadal swept the Melbourne Summer Series 250 then, somehow, came from two sets down to defeat Russian Daniil Medvedev in over five hours 2-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to claim his second Australian Open some 13 years after his first. Simply outrageous.

Yet despite such a feat, Nadal, a 13-time champion, still wasn’t the favourite entering this year’s French Open. The Spaniard hadn’t won a lead-in tournament on clay for what felt like the first time since the dinosaurs roamed the earth and he also revealed he lives with a chronic foot injury that had flared up in a loss to Denis Shapovalov in Rome.

Moreover, Djokovic was back in form and Alcaraz was playing at a level not seen by a teenager since, well, Nadal himself.

How wrong we were. Again.

Nadal arrived in Paris with the daily support of his personal doctor and did his thing. For a fourteenth time - although not without its challenges. Nadal’s fourteenth Roland Garros title alone equals the once-held grand slam record of Pete Sampras from the pre-Big 3 era.

If the 2022 Australian Open win was Nadal’s greatest ever. This herculean effort might just be top three (2008 Wimbledon is the other obvious podium contender).

Remarkably, after 20 years on tour, Nadal is now in unfamiliar territory. The Spaniard has never won the first two slams of the year and he’s staring down the barrel of a calendar grand slam for the first time.

His biggest challenge? Djokovic. The Spaniard hasn’t beaten the Serbian on grass or hard courts since the 2013 US Open final.

But in a year where Nadal continues to surprise us, you wouldn’t dare say he can’t do it.

The Rise of Carlos Alcaraz

In January, Carlos Alcaraz, the 32nd seed at the Australian Open fresh from winning the ATP NextGen Finals, boldly declared he wanted to be top 15 by year's end after rising from world number 141 in the preceding twelve months.

That was ticked off by April.

To date, the young star has amassed a 32-4 winning record with tournament wins in Rio, Miami, Barcelona, and Madrid and now sits seventh in the ATP rankings and second in the ATP race to Turin.

Such was his dominance in the months leading up to the French Open, Alcaraz was considered one of the three most likely to win the event alongside Nadal and Djokovic. Alexander Zverev even labelled him the best player in the world at the time of his win over the German at the Madrid Open.

Only Nadal, Matteo Berrettini, Sebastian Korda, and Zverev have beaten the Spaniard to this point in 2022 and none did so in straight sets – highlighting the consistency of Alcaraz and the calibre of player required to defeat him.

Right now it seems inevitable that Alcaraz will win a slam, and more likely, several of them. The question is simply a matter of when not if.

The Aussies

2022 has been a strong year for the Aussies so far. The Australian Open was a raging success with Ash Barty’s singles win and the Special K’s doubles crown capping off a magnificent evening for Australian tennis.

Even after farewelling Barty and fifteen-time grand slam champion Dylan Alcott, it’s been a good start to the year.

To name a few on the men’s side, Nick Kyrgios, still prone to a decent blow-up, has looked refreshed on the court and is back in the top 100 and beating high-quality opposition in the weeks he elects to play including the likes of Casper Ruud and Andrey Rublev.

Alex de Minaur is back at 22 in the world and had his best clay-court season to date.

Thanasi Kokkinakis won his first ATP-level tournament in Adelaide and is back where he belongs in the top 100 after a long hiatus. He and Kyrgios sit in fourth spot in the ATP doubles race after their grand slam crown and a semi-final run at the Miami Masters.

Jordan Thompson has found form on the grass, this past fortnight with a title and a runner-up in back-to-back challenger finals in the UK and is now back up to 70 in the rankings.

The extraordinarily talented Jason Kubler – with a new clothing sponsor and a two-handed backhand the envy of most mere mortals has risen back to the top 100, 100 to be exact in the rankings. A 32/10 year with two ITF titles, qualifying and winning a round at the French Open, an ATP challenger title in Little Rock the week prior and overnight in his quest for back-to-back challenger titles, he did have to retire in the final in Orlando with stomach issues, but no injury to speak of which is great news.

Similarly, Rinky Hijikata, Li Tu, and Omar Jasika are fast rising up the singles ranks as they grind away at the lower levels out of the limelight.

In the paired game, Max Purcell and Matt Ebden are quickly becoming a doubles team that no one wants to play. After making the Australian Open final, the pair took out the Houston 250 title and were runner-up overnight at the s’Hertogenbosch 250.

On the women’s side, Jaimee Fourlis has just completed a very encouraging fortnight winning back-to-back ITF titles (a 60k in Romania and a 25k in Spain) to be back inside the top 200 at a career-high ranking of 177. She has a 31/12 record this season, after also taking out the ITF 25k in Bendigo earlier this year.

Ellen Perez has just taken out the Libema Open doubles crown alongside Slovenian Tamara Zidanšek after a scintillating and cold-blooded return winner from the Aussie to save a Championship point in the match tie-breaker.

Daria Saville has returned to the tour and is on the cusp of the top 100 with the form that saw her reach the top 20 in the world. Helpfully, Saville has saved her best tennis for the bigger events including a third round at the French Open, a quarter-final at the Miami Masters, and a run to the fourth round at Indian Wells after starting in qualifying.

Olivia Gadecki is continuing her strong form at ITF level and is now at 166 in the rankings after being unranked only 18 months ago.

Priscilla Hon is fit again and back in the top 200 after winning the ITK 25k in Netanya, Israel last week.

Don’t expect results like these to slow down either, with the Aussies typically enjoying strong grass-court seasons as we march towards the back half of the year.