This article was written for the January/February 2022 issue of New York Tennis Magazine, prior to the availability of all players mentioned being known.
As it does every year, the new year of tennis will get underway at the Australian Open.
On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic has won three straight Australian Open titles, while Naomi Osaka is in pursuit of her third title in the last four years.
There is much going on off the court when it pertains to Djokovic, but for the purpose of this article, we will stick to the on-court part of tennis, and examine some of the Contenders, Pretenders and Sleepers for the 2022 Australian Open.
The Australian Open begins on Monday, January 16.
This article was written prior to the availability of all players being definitively known. Subject to change.
Contenders – Men’s Singles
It would be impossible to have any sort of preview of this year’s Australian Open without beginning with the world’s greatest player: Novak Djokovic. The top-ranked Serb has won the last three Aussie Open titles, and is the owner of nine titles Down Under in his illustrious career. He also may enter 2022 more motivated than ever. Djokovic was in pursuit of both the Golden Slam, and the Grand Slam, before failing to medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and then losing in the U.S. Open finals to Daniil Medvedev. Djokovic would also lose to Alexander Zverev at the end-of-the-year ATP Finals, finishing his year on a losing note. While he still won three Slam titles in 2021, I’m sure to Djokovic it feels like something was missing. Look for a motivated and determined Djokovic to make up for that as he opens up his 2022 Slam campaign in Melbourne.
The aforementioned Zverev compiled a fantastic 2021 season, winning 59 matches and reaching two major semifinals. He also captured the Gold Medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and the end-of-the-year ATP Finals. But something still seems to be missing from Zverev’s resume, and that is that elusive Slam title. Zverev has seem to come into his own as a tennis player, and has never been more consistent in his career, which leads him into a crucial Australian Open event for the 24-year-old. He was a quarterfinalist a year ago, and reached the semifinals two years ago, but Zverev has proven he can beat any player inside the Top 10, including Djokovic, and will be a major favorite to win the year’s first major.
One of the keys to succeeding on the fast hard-courts at the Australian Open is having a consistent serve, and that is where Italy’s Matteo Berrettini stands at the top of the ATP Tour. According to an Infosys ATP Beyond the Numbers analysis, the seventh-ranked Berrettini led the tour in service games won in three of the six different score categories (0/40, 15/30 and 30/40) examined by the analysis in 2021, indicating that more than anyone else, Berrettini dug himself out of service games holes throughout the season. He finished the tour fourth in total service games won at more than 89 percent. That blistering serve, and Berrettini’s huge forehand make him a devastating opponent to face on hard courts, and look for Berrettini to compile his best showing at the Australian Open thus far.
Contenders – Women’s Singles
Karolina Pliskova, the fourth-ranked Czech, put together two deep runs at the year’s final two majors, momentum she will now carry to Australia in 2022. Pliskova reached the Wimbledon finals and the U.S. Open semifinals, and is eager to finally claim that elusive Slam title. A perennial member of the Top 10, Pliskova is always a threat to advance to the second week of majors. Despite failing to get out of the third round at the Australian Open in each of the last two seasons, the previous three years saw her reach one semifinal, and two quarterfinals in Melbourne. Look for us to get that version of Pliskova in 2022, and carry the good vibes she had to close out 2021 into the new season.
Photo Credit: Pete Staples/USTA
Don’t call it a comeback. Spain’s Garbine Muguruza went back to her old, Slam-winning form in 2021, and that should remain the same in 2022. Muguruza began the year ranked 15th, and finished it ranked third in the world, helped by her triumph at the end-of-the-year WTA Finals. Muguruza is owner of a French Open and Wimbledon title, but could be in line to add a third trophy to that collection after the Australian Open. Her aggressive, all-court style coupled with her powerful groundstrokes translate well to the hard courts, and she has proven that she has the fortitude to beat any other lady on tour, and can rise to the occasion in even the most pressure-filled matches.
There is always pressure to win in your home country. That pressure is only amplified when you are the top-ranked player in the world, but it doesn’t seem as if Australia’s Ash Barty gets rattled by those sorts of things. Barty won the Wimbledon title in 2021, but will have the eyes of her nation upon her as she tries to navigate her way to an Australian Open title to begin 2022. She has been successful Down Under over the last three years, reaching the quarterfinals twice, and the semifinals in her last three appearances, but look for Barty to take that one step further this time around. She has always had the variety and craftiness in her game, making her a tricky opponent to face, but Barty has established a very good and consistent serve as well now. The combination of all that, plus her experience, makes Barty a real threat to have a victorious homecoming.
Pretenders – Men’s Singles
The 2021 campaign ended nicely for Andrey Rublev who helped guide his Russian team to the nation’s third Davis Cup title, and he finished the season ranked fifth in the world. However, despite a quarterfinal showing at the Australian Open to begin the season, Rublev did not fair well at the other three majors, getting bounced in the opening round of the French Open, the fourth-round at Wimbledon, and the third-round at the U.S. Open. He has never made it out of the quarterfinals at a major, and that could be the case once again to begin 2022. Rublev is certainly one of the best young talents in the game, but making that next jump to the latest stages of a major is something he is still searching for.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA
Norway’s highest-ranking player ever, Casper Ruud, had a career-best season in 2021. He finished the year eighth in the rankings, reached the semifinals of the ATP Finals and won five titles in all. But Ruud is primarily known as a clay-court player, which is where the majority of his success came on. He was bounced in the fourth-round of the Australian Open to start the season, his best Slam showing, and was eliminated in just the second-round of the U.S. Open. His inconsistency on the hard courts puts him on a potential upset alert in the early rounds at the 2022 Australian Open, and while he is a young, promising player on tour, Ruud still hasn’t proven he can advance to the second week of a Slam event.
Improving his ranking 25 spots from start-to-finish of 2021, Hubert Hurkacz enjoyed himself a breakout season last year. The tall and lanky Pole moved into the Top 10 for the first time in his career, becoming the highest-ranking male player in his country’s history, and he did win three titles. But it was on the biggest stages where Hurkacz seemingly stumbled as he lost in the opening rounds of the Australian Open and French Opens, before falling in the second-round of the U.S. Open. He did advance to the Wimbledon semifinals, which did a lot to bolster his ranking, but his struggles in Melbourne over the course of his career, which includes two opening-round exits and a second-round departure, do not bode well for him entering 2022. Like Ruud, he is a promising young talent, but don’t look for him to be a deep threat at this year’s Australian Open.
Pretenders – Women’s Singles
It feels a bit counterintuitive to place Naomi Osaka in the “Pretenders” section of this preview, but here we are. Due to a lack of match play, Osaka has dropped out of the Top 10 and now sits at 13th in the world rankings. Her only title of the season came in Melbourne as she won the Australian Open title to open up the season, but it was a trying year for Osaka. She battled mental health issues, and served an important role in shining a light on the mental health issues that not only tennis players, but all athletes, face that many fans don’t ever see. The scrutiny she faced and backlash she received was outnumbered by the outpouring of support, but that attention can take a toll on a person. She last played at the U.S. Open in September, so there is little doubt rust will be a factor when she returns, making it difficult for her to defend her title in Melbourne.
Photo Credit: Andrew Ong/USTA
The New York City-born Paula Badosa put together an incredible 2021 season that was the best of her career to date. Badosa won 43 matches and two titles, and shot up to a career-high ranking of eighth in the world, and is now one of the premier women’s players on tour. She grew up in Barcelona, Spain, and therefore clay is her favorite surface, indicated by her run to the French Open quarterfinals this past season. But she did struggle a bit on hard courts and that was indicated by a first-round exit at the Australian Open, and a second-round exit at the U.S. Open. Badosa has come into her own as a professional, and has the game to sustain her stay at the top of the rankings, but her hard-court struggles at the majors is something she needs to overcome.
The second-ranked player in the world is perhaps its biggest hitter, as Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka possesses a huge forehand and powerful serve that translates well to the hard courts. We saw her reach the semifinals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2021, but the Australian Open is still an event where success eludes her. She reached the fourth-round in Melbourne a year ago, but prior to that she was eliminated in the first-round twice, and the third-round once. While Sabalenka is no doubt one of the most formidable players on tour, some events are tricky for players, and it seems as if the Australian Open is that for Sabalenka.
Sleepers – Men’s Singles
New seasons set the stage for new players to break out and potentially win a major, and this year could be it for Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime. The 11th ranked, 21-year-old is coming off a semifinal appearance at the U.S. Open, momentum he aims to bring with him into the new year. He is now being coached by Toni Nadal, who of course helped lead Rafa to the heights he has reached, and with that Slam experience being passed down to him, look for Auger-Aliassime to take the next step in his career. He still has yet to win a title on the ATP Tour, but do not be surprised if the young Canadian is in contention for one at the 2022 Australian Open.
Arriving on the scene later than most, Russia’s Aslan Karatsev isn’t the young tennis phenom that some of the other players in this section are, but the 28-year-old has been steady over the last year or two, and that bodes well for him heading into 2022. He is ranked 18th in the world at the moment, and that’s after hardly playing on the ATP Tour prior to last year. In fact, he had to go through qualifying just to reach the main draw of last year’s Australian Open. What did he do after qualifying? Karetsev proceeded to reach the semifinals, in what was his first ever main draw appearance at a Slam. Karatsev showed he can perform well in Australia, something he aims to do again in 2022.
Photo Credit: Pete Staples/USTA
Rounding out the Top 10 on the men’s side of the rankings is Italy’s Jannick Sinner, and intriguing young player who has shown signs of brilliance throughout his brief career so far. He has an excellent two-handed backhand, and a long frame that makes him a fantastic defensive player, and a powerful forehand which allows him to play both offensive and defensive tennis. Sinner has not been great at the Australian Open in his two showings, both early exits, but still just 20-years-old, Sinner has the talent to make a deep run at any major. His calm, laid-back approach can work to his benefit, and there is no contender in this event who wants to see the young Italian on the other side of the net.
Sleepers – Women’s Singles
Photo Credit: Darren Carroll/USTA
Perhaps the best player on the women’s tour no one knows about is Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit. The steady 26-year-old is the highest ranked player in her country’s history, and she looks to continue climbing up those rankings as we enter 2022. She currently sits at seventh in the world, and is coming off of her best season to date, one that saw her win four WTA titles, and reach the championship of the WTA Finals. Kontaveit was a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in 2020, and as she continues to play the best tennis of her career, don’t be surprised if she advances even further than that this time around.
It seemed to be a forgotten season for Sofia Kenin, as she played no matches after Wimbledon in the summer, so it’s easy to forget just how good this young American is. Kenin won the Australian Open title in 2020, and perhaps the notoriety and pressure of being a top player had an effect on her, but Kenin should be back to her old self this coming season. She is reunited with her father as her coach, after they split in May of 2021, and that report should produce great results once again. With her coaching staff back in place, and her recovered health from some nagging injuries, Kenin is a top threat to win the Australian Open title in 2022.
Now out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2016, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina is ready to surprise some people in 2022. Despite her perennial ranking inside the Top 10 over the last several years, Svitolina was never able to reach the finals of a major event. She has been to multiple semifinals, and a number of different quarterfinals, but reaching the finals of a major has to be priority number one for her playing career. She certainly has the physical tools to do it, and perhaps being more motivated than ever before, Svitolina is a dangerous player entering 2022. With her ranking dropping, she may be able to sneak up on some of her opponents to begin this year. Svitolina is a two-time quarterfinalist in Melbourne and could make a deep run at the Australian Open, and make it her best one yet.