1. NAOMI OSAKA
When she triumphed at the Australian Open in February, Naomi Osaka had clearly established herself as the best player in the world.
She had won the previous Grand Slam event, her third, at the US Open five months earlier, and seemed destined to become a dominant player – at least in the short term.
But no one could know at the time that she would play only 14 more matches (8-6) the rest of the year and see her No. 3 ranking drop to No. 13.
Recently turned 24, Osaka should be in her prime years and able to again be a top player, particularly on hard courts. But it’s impossible to know exactly where her head is at after her withdrawal from the French Open in May with a mental health issue at least partly related to the requirement of players to do press conferences after matches.
Following her loss to Leylah Annie Fernandez in the third round of the US Open, Osaka was conflicted in her post-match media conference, saying, “I feel like for me recently, when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.” She then said she would be taking a break from tennis, which resulted in her ending her 2021 season.
She’s entered in one of the two pre-Australian Open WTA 250 events in Melbourne the week of January 3-9. That will be an opportunity to gauge whether, in 2022, she’s able to recapture the form that made her such a force on the tour in previous years.
2. ASHLEIGH BARTY
Heading into her third year ranked No. 1 (aided by pandemic rankings that have somewhat stalled movement among the players), Barty faces a huge challenge right off the bat in 2022 at her home Grand Slam in Melbourne.
It will be her ninth Australian Open – with her best finishes being a quarter-final in 2019 (No. 6 Petra Kvitova), a 2020 semi-final (No. 15 Sofia Kenin) and a 2021 quarter-final (No. 27 Karolina Muchova). The latter was a strange match as she seemed to lose the plot and become passive and error-prone after the Czech took a 10-minute injury time-out (dizziness) off court trailing 6-1, 2-1. The final score was 1-6, 6-3, 6-2.
There’s always extra pressure on Aussies playing at Melbourne Park, trying to become the first host-nation player to win since Chris O’Neil against a mostly domestic field in 1978.
Barty’s compatriot Sam Stosur won the 2011 US Open and made four semi-finals (including one final) at Roland Garros, but always felt the weight of expectation at home – winning only one match in her last six appearances.
A year ago, Barty won the warm-up tournament in Melbourne and this year she’s entered in the WTA 500 event in Adelaide the first week of January to be followed by her appearance at the WTA 500 tournament in Sydney the second week.
After more than six months away after last year’s Australian Open, Barty, 25, has now been home for three months and in that time became engaged to her long-time boyfriend Gary Kissick.
3. THE SENSATIONS
Over the last eight Grand Slam events (no Wimbledon in 2020) dating back to the 2019 US Open, a group of five talented players – all young except for 25-year-old Barbora Krejcikova at the 2021 French Open – have emerged as surprise champions. They include Bianca Andreescu, 19, (2019 US Open), Sofia Kenin, 21, (2020 Australian Open), Iga Swiatek, 19, (2020 French Open and Emma Raducanu, 18, (2021 US Open). To those four it makes sense to add Fernandez, 19, after her amazing run to the 2021 US Open final that included victories over household names Osaka, Angelique Kerber, Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka.
Picking which one or two of those six could break out in 2022 is a mug’s (an easily-deceived person) game. Krejcikova might have been the most logical pick just because of her age and the fact that she played consistently well after winning Roland Garros – 19-9 (19-5 except for four consecutive season-ending losses when she struggled with injury, fatigue and doubles obligations) and a title in Prague. But now she’s out of the Australian Open, which could cost her momentum for the rest of the year.
Among the others, the No. 9-ranked Swiatek had a 36-15 record in 2021 that included titles on hard courts in Adelaide and on clay in Rome. She was also the only player to reach at least the round-of-16 at the four Grand Slams. But she has looked mentally fragile at times – battling confidence highs and lows.
As for the remaining four, they could best be considered question marks heading into 2022.
Raducanu: She was a total revelation with her storybook triumph at the US Open. But a 2-3 record for the rest of 2021 raises concerns about whether she can regain that sublime form after all the attention and distractions of her massive break-through victory.
It was fascinating that on the year-end British ‘The Tennis Podcast’ none of the three regulars picked Raducanu as a possible top-five finisher in 2022. Just as notable, none even bothered to mention her name or why they were not picking her.
Kenin: Not only did she split with her father/coach Alex in the spring (he is now back in the fold) but she had an emergency appendectomy following a second-round loss as defending champion to Kaia Kanepi at the Australian Open and got COVID-19 in the summer. She has not played since Wimbledon, finishing 2021 at No. 12 with an 11-10 record.
Andreescu: The super-talented Canadian returned in 2021 after not playing at all in 2020. There was the highlight of reaching the Miami Open final in April against Barty before having to retire with an ankle injury. She was 17-12 for the year and showed flashes of her brilliant tennis, including a fourth round at the US Open when she lost 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-3 to the feisty Maria Sakkari in a thriller that ended at 2:13 a.m. Andreescu did not play after a second-match loss in Indian Wells in October and announced earlier this month that she will skip Australia next month after a year when she had to quarantine for two weeks before the Aussie Open, got COVID-19 in April and missed the Olympic Games. She stated she wanted “extra time to re-set, recover and grow” – another dramatic pause for the 21-year-old.
Fernandez: As much of a revelation as Raducanu based on the quality of players she upset at the US Open, the on-a-mission, hyper-motivated lefty advanced from No. 88 to No. 24 in 2021 and compiled a 25-17 record that included her first WTA title in Monterrey, Mexico, in March. Fernandez was a run-away, crowd favourite at the US Open and will surely have a legion of fans when she starts her 2022 at the Adelaide WTA 500 event next week.
Addendum: It’s impossible also not to mention Coco Gauff, the American who’s still only 17 and already ranked No. 22. She was 36-16 in 2021 and showed great consistency, reaching at least the quarterfinals of seven of her 14 tournaments. Not with as high a profile as most of the aforementioned group in terms of results this year, she may be well positioned to make a big move in 2022.
4. THE OLD GUARD
The range of ages of the more mature major players on the WTA tour goes from the 23-year-old, No. 2-ranked Sabalenka to the 40-year-old Serena Williams, No. 41.
It appears Sabalenka is better positioned to win a Grand Slam if she can just rein in some of that outrageous power while Williams, who will miss the Australia Open (her second Grand Slam in a row) is running out of runway. Never at her best at Roland Garros, her logical next chance in 2022, if fit, would be Wimbledon and then the US Open. But by then she will be closing in on 41, with her daughter Alexis about to turn five.
Younger cohort players such as No. 3-ranked Garbine Muguruza, 28, and improving No. 8 Paula Badosa, 24, are candidates for big things but still far from consistent performers on the big stage while thirty-somethings Simona Halep (30), Petra Kvitova (31), Kerber (33) and Victoria Azarenka (32) may find that their multiple Grand Slam successes are now in the rear-view mirror.
Sakkari No. 6, Anett Kontaveit No. 7 and Ons Jabeur No. 10, made significant progress in 2021 but can they consolidate or even improve going forward? Or might a player such as No. 28 Jelena Ostapenko, 24, the 2017 French Open champion, harness her remarkable firepower to win another big one? Or does the rangy 5-foot-11, Russian Ludmilla Samsonova, 23 and ranked No. 38, build on her 2021 success to become a threat at majors?
Raducanu, No. 350 at the start of 2021, and Krejcikova, at No. 65, serve as examples of the folly of trying to forecast the future.
Feature Photo: Sarah Jade Champagne