1. NOVAK DJOKOVIC
The cold, hard facts reflect that Djokovic is the best player in the history of tennis. There are many other factors to be considered in determining superiority through the ages in a sport, but Djokovic controls the main numbers in tennis at the moment. He’s tied at 20 Grand Slam titles with his long-time rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and has accomplished something neither of them has – winning each of the Grand Slam and Masters 1000 events twice. And he leads the head-to-head with both rivals – 27-23 vs. Federer and 30-28 vs. Nadal – as well as holding records for the most weeks at No. 1 with 353 and for finishing the year in the top spot seven times.
At the moment, Djokovic’s status for the Australian Open beginning on January 17th is in doubt after he withdrew from the ATP Cup event in Sydney beginning Saturday.
The 34-year-old Serb was the main story of 2021 as he came up one match short of winning only the fourth calendar Grand Slam in men’s tennis history. The focus on him in 2022 won’t change even if he misses the Australian Open. He remains the standard by which all players measure themselves. If he doesn’t play Melbourne Park, it will only increase the mystery and intrigue surrounding him.
The competitive fire remains. “I still feel like I have years in my legs and in my heart and in my head,” he said during the ATP Finals in Torino last month. “As long as that’s the case, I’ll keep going, because I truly love the sport and I enjoy the competition…it keeps me going, challenges me, motivates me, and that’s essential ingredients for me to still keep on playing. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to get up more or less every single day and train hard in order to stay at that highest level and compete for the biggest titles in the sport.”
2. PRETENDERS TO THE THRONE
It was fated to happen sometime and it finally did last year with Daniil Medvedev, 25, and Alexander Zverev, 24, emerging as genuine challengers to Djokovic’s dominance.
Medvedev ruined Djokovic’s dream of the Grand Slam by winning the US Open final 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. A month earlier, Zverev had dashed the Serb’s hopes of a Golden Slam with a 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory in the Olympic semi-finals in Tokyo.
Both 6-foot-6 and with Russian heritage, No. 2-ranked Medvedev is now 4-4 in his last eight meetings with Djokovic dating back to 2017 while No. 3 Zverev won two of their three matches in 2021 – at the Olympics and the ATP Finals while the 6-foot-2 Djokovic prevailed in a US Open semi-final thriller 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 34 minutes.
World No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, 2-6 against Djokovic, is a notch behind Medvedev and Zverev, but is also younger at 23. He has lost his last five meetings against the current No 1, but two of those were five-setters in the semifinals (2020) and final (2021) of Roland Garros. He remains a bit of an unknown quantity for 2022 after receiving a right elbow surgery in late November.
Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas have paid their dues and matured into legitimate rivals of Djokovic – the question for 2022 is can they take their games to the next level to begin to beat him with regularity at the most important events.
Players such as Jannik Sinner, Casper Ruud, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Hubert Hurkacz have yet to make the breakthroughs that Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas have – although Rudd (8), Hurkacz (9) and Sinner (10) are already in the Top 10. But with players such as Matteo Berrettini (7), Ruud, Hurkacz and maybe even Andrey Rublev (5) and Nadal (6) vulnerable, there should be movement and room for newcomers in the 2022 Top 10. Auger-Aliassime (one week) and Shapovalov (eight weeks) have already had brief stays in that elite group this past year.
3. ROGER AND RAFA
With his third surgery on his right knee after Wimbledon this past summer, and his admission that it’s questionable he will be ready for the next Wimbledon in late June, it’s hard to imagine Federer being a factor in 2022 after a potential 12 months out of the game and turning 41 in August. But this year’s Wimbledon would be his 22nd, and conceivably his last, so it’s likely he will make the ultimate effort to be fit in time.
As for Nadal, he has only played two matches – in Washington last August – since losing in the French Open semi-finals last June and then rehabbing the longstanding, troublesome navicular bone issue in his left foot. He’s dealing with COVID-19 at the moment and still hopes to play the 2022 Australian Open. Looking ahead, a healthy Nadal remains the odds-on favourite, on the Parisian terre battue, to win the French Open (for a 14th time) in the final on June 5th, two days after his 36th birthday.
4. THE UNICORN
Carlos Alcaraz was the shooting star of the 2021 season, rising from No. 141 to No. 32 at just 18 years of age.
He has a flair for the dramatic and defeated Tsitsipas in a four-hour and seven-minute, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5) classic at the 2021 US Open and then had pair of fascinating encounters with Andy Murray at Indian Wells (lost) and Vienna (won) in the fall. At the Next Gen Finals in Milan in November, he outclassed a field of players all older than him. He also won his first title at the ATP 250 in Umag, Croatia, in July.
Unfortunately, in compatriot Nadal’s absence, his highly-anticipated debut at the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid last month didn’t materialize when he tested positive for COVID-19.
“It’s very impressive, very impressive the way he’s playing,” Djokovic said about the 6-foot-1 native of El Palmar, Murcia, Spain, “and the way he’s behaving as well off the court. Has a very nice personality.
“He’s got a legend of our sport as a coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who is known also to be a very intelligent guy on and off the court, someone that has been in the shoes of No. 1 in the world, winning Grand Slams. He understands what it takes for a young player to reach the highest level in tennis.
“So everything has been working perfectly so far for him, and I wish him all the best because he’s definitely great for Spanish tennis and great for tennis in general.”
Nadal reached the Top 10 five weeks before his 19th birthday in 2005. It appears unlikely Alcaraz can beat that with his 19th birthday approaching on May 5th.
But he has it all – explosive power and movement as well as a precocious match-playing temperament. No one has come on the scene with as dynamic a game and presence at such a young age since his idol Nadal. But that doesn’t stop him from saying he thinks his game is more like Federer’s.
Tennis followers are always eager to track the latest potential superstar. In 2022, at least as the season begins, Alcaraz is definitely their man.