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Tennis once again finds itself on the precipice of uncharted territory heading into 2022.

With both the WTA and ATP Tour Finals now in the rear-view mirror, reflection can now take the place of reaction.

There’s been plenty of memorable moments on the court in 2021 and while the patriot in me finds it hard to look past Ash Barty’s Wimbledon win, Emma Raducanu’s triumph at Flushing Meadows is hard to top.

But while the 19-year-old Brit’s breakthrough captured headlines, the absence of household names like Federer, Nadal and Williams from major honour rolls remains an unavoidable talking point.

While retirement plans are not yet on the agenda, there is no denying Father Time remains undefeated.

A reminder of that very fact was served up this past week when Federer ruled out any chance of a return to Australia this summer due to his ongoing recovery from post-Wimbledon knee surgery.

Tennis fans have been treated to constant greatness from those at the top of the sport over the last decade but with many of those household names now in the twilight of their careers, opportunity has begun to present itself for those willing and able to seize it.

The iron grip of The Big Three on the men’s game has seen only a handful of players breakthrough for major wins inside the last 15 years and while Djokovic remains a force to be reckoned with over best-of-five, inroads are being made.

Daniil Medvedev felt the full force of Novak at Melbourne Park back in February but just seven months later those roles were reversed when the Russian conquered New York.

While Zverev and Tsitsipas are yet to find the answer over five, slam success looms large on the horizon and Dominic Thiem remains a daunting prospect upon his eventual return to the tour in 2022.

This past year marked the emergence of several rising stars, most notably 18-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz who was a deserving victor at the Next Gen Finals earlier this month.

Jannik Sinner, who is only 20 himself, also looks primed for an even bigger 2022 after he made a strong impression at the Tour Finals this past week.

After replacing an injured Matteo Berrettini, Sinner defeated Hubert Hurkacz and held two-match points against eventual runner-up Medvedev. The Italian will finish this year ranked inside the top 10.

The casual tennis fan might be daunted by the lack of Federer and Nadal but after a such an extended period of sustained dominance, the opportunity for players to make fairy-tale runs through previously loaded draws may very well energise men’s tennis in 2022.

That was exactly the case for women’s tennis at this year’s US Open when both Emma Raducanu and Canada’s LeylahFernandez made history.

The buzz that those two teenagers were able to create was special and heading into next year, fan optimism around the women’s game should be high, especially if you’re Australian.

Earlier this month Ash Barty became the first woman since Serena Williams to notch 100 weeks as world number 1 and,frighteningly, on a year when she went 42-8, there may be improvement to come.

Australia’s border restrictions and quarantine requirements meant that players remained on the road for the vast majority of 2021 and Barty was no different.

Following her defeat to Shelby Rogers in the third-round of the US Open, Ash returned home to Australia and ultimately made the decision to forgo her WTA Finals title defence.

The likelihood of relaxed restrictions will hopefully make the 2022 season more negotiable for Australian players and an extended preseason will no doubt hold Barty in good stead this summer.

The returns to tour of Serena and Naomi Osaka will dominate the headlines in the new year and the continual development of Swiatek, Raducanu and Fernandez, among others, will add plenty of intrigue to what is a stacked women’s tour.

The rest of the Australian contingent is not to be dismissed either with Ajla Tomljanvoic and Storm Sanders bothproducing career years on the singles court. Ellen Perez was similarly strong on the doubles court, as was Sam Stosur who ended her year on a high at the WTA Finals.

The shining light for Australia’s male brigade in 2021 came in the form of James Duckworth who rose to a career high ranking of 49. Australian tennis fans will be excited to support the form player of Australian men’s tennis on home soil come January.

Next year will also mark the return of ATP and WTA rankings to a more traditional 52-week format, as opposed to the 2-year system that’s been adopted through the pandemic.

The change bodes particularly well for Duckworth and Sanders following breakout years, but other Aussies are staring down the barrel of slides down the rankings if they cannot resurrect their form.

Alex de Minaur retains his title as Australia’s top ranked malecoming into next year, but he’ll be looking to put a rollercoaster year behind him that was dogged by a COVID-19 diagnosis. De Minaur showed glimpses of his best last month at Indian Wells and here’s hoping he can find that kind of form more consistently in 2022.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the progression of Max Purcell and Thanasi Kokkinakis as both look to make his presence felt on tour after strong results at challenger level.

Those are just a handful of the Australian names that will be looking to make an impact in 2022 and they may well be at the forefront of our summer when you consider that some players may not make the trip down under.

Last week, Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley confirmed that players will need to be fully vaccinated to come to Victoria and play at the Australian Open.

Vaccination rates on tour have lagged behind other world sports throughout 2021 but the offseason will offer many their best chance to get the jab once theyreturn home.

This announcement means the threat of the reigning champion bypassing the first major of the year is real and following his semi-final loss to Zverev at the ATP Finals, Djokovic did not exactly remedy those concerns.

“I haven’t been talking to [the Australian Open organisers]. I was just waiting to hear what the news is going to be. Now that I know, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

The ATP has made it known to players life on tour will be more difficult in 2022 for those who choose to remain unvaccinated and that they will support governments and local public health authorities in instances where vaccination status is required.

The ball is certainly in the court of the players when it comes to the upcoming Australian summer and fingers crossed we see the best players across the opening month of next year when capacity crowds finally return to Melbourne Park.

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.

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