Two Ways to Look At Denis Shapovalov’s Loss to Novak Djokovic

Denis Shapovalov just lost to Novak Djokovic for the eighth time in eight matches. The match’s scoreline, 6-3, 6-4, was not close, but the contest itself felt tight. Shapovalov, as in some previous matches against Djokovic, had opportunities to build leads and was largely unable to capitalize. He made some bad errors, including a big handful of double faults, but he pushed Djokovic — not an easy task on an Australian hard court. The match took almost two hours, a rarity for a straight-set match without a tiebreak. Shapovalov broke Djokovic’s serve after trailing 40-love in the second set. The loss is not without positive takeaways.

After a match like this, in which Shapovalov showed plenty of reminders of his skill and potential but fell ultimately (and significantly) short, both the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders would have a lot to say. You played pretty well! Yeah, but are you ever going to beat this guy? Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, in my opinion, but I think you can be optimistic about Shapovalov’s performance or come down on him pretty hard for it, and you could make some strong points either way.

The good

Look, Djokovic is a terrible matchup for Shapovalov. The 21-time major champion’s peerless defense is anathema to Shapovalov’s risky (if explosive) aggression. Shapovalov would not have double faulted nine times against any other opponent, nor would he have biffed an easy backhand volley on a vital point at 4-all in the second set. Not that this result should be asterisked, but Shapovalov would have had an easier time against any other opponent in the world. It’d be harsh to fault him for losing to his principal tormentor.

Despite the lopsided head-to-head, Djokovic clearly took the match seriously from the outset, which is a compliment to Shapovalov. The Serb is prone to bouts of lackadaisical play in many of his matches — but, crucially, he only indulges in them when he can afford the dips. In this match, he was sharp immediately, dodging a pair of break points in the opening game, then another at 2-all in the first set. Though Shapovalov scored a body blow in the second set by going up 4-3 after being down a break, Djokovic duly responded with a quick hold and a break at 4-all. The fact that Djokovic didn’t let go of the set speaks to the idea that he didn’t think he could afford to give Shapovalov an inch.

Shapovalov’s highlight reel from this match is nothing to sneeze at, either. He played some incredible defense, which I think is an underrated part of his game — he’s a great mover, and he’s rangy, so he covers the corners really well. He slides confidently, helping him explode back out of the court’s nether regions when his opponent drives him there. And I’ve never really seen him gas out, at least not in the past couple years — he can defend like this for hours if he needs to. He hit a half volley on break point at 4-all in the second set that made me gasp. He blistered a few massive forehands. Even against the smooth wall that is Djokovic’s tennis, Shapovalov’s game found a few footholds.

This match had more than enough reminders that Shapovalov is a damn tough opponent at his best. There’s the huge serve, the athleticism, the heavy groundstrokes. He’s a great fighter: With Djokovic serving at 3-2, 30-love, Shapovalov erred to end a rally and started berating himself. I thought he was wasting his energy, Djokovic never drops serve from 40-love up. But Shapovalov dug in, banged a couple winners, and got the break. The return of serve is often a mess, but everything else is often great enough to make up for that hole in his game. And when he does have a good returning day? No one is safe.

Tellingly, this video came out more than two years ago, and Shapovalov has hit a lot of amazing shots since.

Shapovalov is a former quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, where he pushed eventual champion Nadal to a fifth set in 2022. He has experience against Djokovic on the big stage. He’s taken part in 20 main draws at the slam events; his body of work is extensive enough that he knows everything he needs to win a big title. And if he needs more time to figure it out, that’s fine — he’s only 23. He’s not going to beat Djokovic at the Australian Open, but if he plays his best, I could see him taking out virtually anyone else. With two victories under his belt prior to the loss to Djokovic, his 2023 is off to a solid start.

The bad

Shapovalov’s rivalry with Djokovic, though it showcases some impressive moments for the Canadian, also highlights his struggles to improve. In their very first meeting (at Djokovic’s backyard in the Australian Open), Shapovalov managed to win a set. He’s yet to do better in a rematch, and he’s had seven bites at the apple since that initial meeting. His return of serve falls to pieces sometimes, but even when it holds up, he can’t convert enough of his break points — he’s 7/29 against Djokovic in total, and 4/22 in his last three matches with the Serb. Shapovalov was the better player for the first six games of today’s match, worming his way into two Djokovic service games without facing a break point himself. Then his serve went haywire at 3-4 and he coughed up a break via three double faults. If Shapovalov hasn’t managed to iron those wrinkles out of his game against Djokovic by now, will he ever?

There’s a temptation to say Shapovalov will figure things out eventually, purely because he’s so clearly skilled, but I’m not convinced. He hasn’t done the best job of learning from his mistakes in the past. In the quarterfinals of the 2020 U.S. Open, he beat Pablo Carreño Busta 6-0 in the fourth set to force a fifth. Carreño Busta had been struggling physically, and Shapovalov seemed surprised and unprepared for a fifth-set resurgence. He lost the decider 6-3. Then, prepared with a nearly identical scenario at the 2022 Australian Open — Shapovalov had forced a fifth set against a diminished Rafael Nadal — he again folded in the decider. This was worse than the U.S. Open loss; Shapovalov didn’t have the excuse of it being his first major quarterfinal, or his first big match against a legendary opponent. He had even beaten Nadal before. But despite Nadal playing fairly tamely (his five winners and three unforced errors suggest he wasn’t trying to force the issue) in the fifth set, Shapovalov made 13 unforced errors and lost it 6-3. He may have logged a lot of time on the ATP Tour, but his notes are a little all over the place.

It’s not difficult to argue that the defining trait of Shapovalov’s career so far is inconsistency. He’ll have a great win or a great run, then he’ll crash for a while. He made the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2021, lost a high-quality, tight match against Djokovic in which he played like a top-five player, then lost four of his next six matches. He beat Nadal in Rome last year, then, inexplicably, suffered six defeats in a row at a time when he should have been buoyed by momentum. It’s not ideal for anyone to follow up a big win with a losing streak, but for a top-20 player, it’s especially hard to find an excuse. And I can’t give him a pass for being young — he’s just 23, yes, but he had his breakout when he beat Nadal in Montreal in 2017, over five full years ago. His ranking steadily rose from just outside the top 50 to #10 in late 2021; it’s since regressed to #18. He’s had ample time to get used to the grind and demands of the tour, and he just doesn’t seem to be improving much.

Consistency is at the core of most great tennis players. Shapovalov doesn’t have it, and until he gets it (if he gets it), he’ll continue to amaze occasionally while underachieving the rest of the time. At this point, Shapovalov doesn’t need to beat Djokovic to show improvement, he just needs to keep his game from imploding for more than a few weeks at a time. Had he won today’s match? I’d have no way of immediately proving it was more than a flash in the pan.

Change is Coming

Carlos Alcaraz lifts the world #1 trophy. He is the youngest-ever ATP player to claim the honor. Screenshot: Tennis TV

In February, I wrote about Andrey Rublev. Specifically, I wrote that I was concerned for his future on tour — he hadn’t shown much improvement over the past few years. He had made his first major quarterfinal in late 2017, and though he took part in more major quarterfinals over the next four-plus years, he was yet to win a set in one. (He has now, having taken two sets off Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros this year, but still hasn’t broken through to the semifinals of a big one.) The Big Three have pioneered an ongoing era that makes improving constantly uber-important — if you don’t do it, someone else will, then they’ll start beating you and pass you in the rankings. Even if you’re on top of a rivalry, unless you look for ways to tighten your execution, players will figure you out. Just ask Daniil Medvedev, someone who Rublev used to have fits against, but has managed to win his last two meetings with. Sometimes the fun times slip away before you know how good you had it.

The problem’s not just that you have to improve to get to the top, it’s that you have to improve a lot. Rarely is it enough to turn a glaring weakness into a slight one. Take Casper Ruud, one of the tour’s most improved players in 2022. Not too long ago, his backhand was a big hole in his game. He would over-spin the shot and hit it high over the net, meaning he couldn’t hit the dangerously flat backhands you see frequently from Novak Djokovic. Spin and net clearance aren’t bad things, but Ruud’s backhands also tended to lack depth — his backhand wing produced a lot of innocent mid-court shots that served as cannon fodder for an opponent’s forehand. Ruud’s backhand is way better now. He hits those flat winners down the line much more often. But in two of the biggest matches he played this year — the Roland-Garros final against Rafael Nadal and the ATP Finals title match against Djokovic — his backhand still wasn’t good enough. His legendary opponents peppered that side of the court over and over until Ruud dropped the ball short or missed altogether. And though Djokovic and Nadal are as difficult as opponents get, and Ruud’s backhand might not seem like a liability at all against virtually anyone else, it’s those who ruthlessly expose weaknesses who stand in the way of big titles more often than not.

Much was made at the time of Ruud idolizing Nadal too much, to the extent that it hurt his chances to win the final, but the biggest reason why this match went the way it did is that Ruud’s backhand never forced him to do anything more than hit decent crosscourt forehands.

Like I said, Ruud has actually done a great job of improving this year. He made a Masters 1000 final, two major finals, and ascended all the way to #2 in the rankings, all things he was nowhere close to doing in 2021. It’s the players who have stagnated — or worse, regressed — that might be worrying about their 2023 seasons. (And there are several.)

It gets worse. At least for the purposes of reaching number one in the world, a player needs the nature of their game to be incredibly high-level. There are many out there who are great at improving, or maximizing the tools they have, but have games with limited potential. Cam Norrie, for instance, is a well-balanced player. (And he just beat Nadal from a set down at the United Cup.) He’s smart on court. He works hard, he has great endurance, and he rarely beats himself. But he’s just never going to develop a nuclear forehand. His ceiling, his best level, is lower than Frances Tiafoe’s, despite Norrie’s ranking being five spots higher. While Norrie is a very solid top-20 player, it’s hard to imagine him becoming a solid top-5 player. I’d say Hubert Hurkacz is in the same boat — his shaky forehand just proves too damning at the very top level, no matter how good everything else is.

It’s easy to look at Carlos Alcaraz’s comet-like path to number one in the world and wonder if other players could follow a similar route. Alcaraz got to the top so quickly! He was barely seeded at the Australian Open under 12 months ago, then was ranked sixth by the end of the clay season and had finished scaling the mountaintop by the end of the year. But while other players might be able to imitate Alcaraz’s intent to improve and tireless spirit, his game is much harder to mimic. Alcaraz is so fast that he must have been born with at least some of the speed he has now. (Or he went to a great track camp.) His game isn’t just well-balanced, it’s sharp: He can do damage with powerful forehands and backhands, soft drop shots, and at net. Though the serve is the most important shot in tennis, Alcaraz has so many weapons at his disposal that even though his serve isn’t that great, it doesn’t hurt him too much.

I hesitate to call Alcaraz’s array of weapons “talent” — I don’t know how much of his style he sought out through formative years of practice and how much he had naturally. Whatever the case, though, it’s clear most other players can’t compete with his game. Blunt as it sounds, Denis Shapovalov is never going to become as good a returner of serve as Alcaraz is now. Medvedev will never have the same kind of forehand as Alcaraz, Taylor Fritz will never be as fast. As much as I stressed the need to improve earlier, players also have to learn to work within their limits.

All this is only part of the reason why the ATP has only had six different world number ones since early 2004. Throw in the (simultaneous, until Roger Federer retired at the Laver Cup this year) existence of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and reaching #1 proved impossible for virtually everyone else. Andy Murray managed to do it in 2016, but he had to surpass 12,000 ranking points to get there (no one on the ATP has more than 7,000 right now). And Medvedev, the last player to hold the honor before Alcaraz, was pushed off the mountaintop after just three weeks. Getting to number one in the world is damn hard.

The first reason I’m writing this is to break a long creative drought. The second is because the era I just described is ending soon, and I think writing this could be a good way to center my expectations for the future of the ATP, especially going into 2023. I’m guilty of saying repeatedly that I’m prepared for the new, more inconsistent, era of the ATP. The truth? I’m used to what we have now. It’s one thing for me to say I’m ready for the new era and another for me not to tweet, “this is the first time a player who isn’t a generational great has won a major since…” as soon as someone besides Djokovic, Nadal, or Alcaraz wins a big one. We’re not quite in the new phase yet; Djokovic and Nadal won three of the four majors this year and Alcaraz, who I’d bet my copy of Open (this is a more serious wager than it sounds) on becoming an all-time great, won the fourth. He might be a new star, but he’s going to spend a very long time at the top of the game. He’s already acting as the bridge between the past era of men’s tennis and the next one.

But what does the rest of that era look like? Maybe Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune, and Jannik Sinner will form something of a new Big Four with Alcaraz. More likely? Those four, headlined by Alcaraz, will win a bunch of titles, but there will be significant gaps for other players to grab majors. All of them will spend some time at number one. Ruud will be the next number one; he’s just 1000 points behind Alcaraz right now, many of which he can make up at the Australian Open — he didn’t play due to injury this year. Fritz might win a major and/or get to world number one. He’s improved a lot, to the point that he can win rallies like the one below with Djokovic. I think that being able to win such rallies will no longer be a must for world number ones, because Djokovic will no longer be the gold standard. Not all of the obstacles someone like Rublev faces are going to fall. There will still be difficult matches and improving will still be crucial, but the challenge won’t be what it is today.

Not all of these changes will happen next year. Maybe none of them will. There’s a probable 2023 where Djokovic wins the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Nadal wins Roland-Garros, and Alcaraz or another youngster wins the U.S. Open. Despite Djokovic and Nadal being in their mid-thirties, they still hit astonishing peaks in the 2022 season. But age’s effects are sneaky. Federer was 37 when he beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2019 and came within a point of beating Djokovic directly afterwards. He looked ten years younger than he was. Then he picked up a knee injury and only won 30 more matches (he won 53 in 2019 alone) before he retired.

After watching Djokovic and Nadal find new ways to stay on top in the past five years, I won’t pretend to know exactly when the next era is coming. But it is. Nadal has lost five of his last six matches; if he goes deep at the Australian Open, none of that will matter, but if he loses early, it might be time to start talking about a decline. Just last year, way past his physical prime, Nadal took part in a series of epic matches — Medvedev in Australia, Alcaraz at Indian Wells, Djokovic at Roland-Garros, Fritz at Wimbledon. He makes the tour more competitive and thrilling, as does Djokovic, as did Federer. I don’t want to imagine the game without the remaining members of the Big Three, and soon, I won’t have to imagine it, I’ll be watching it.

***

In 2017, after the euphoria of the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final had faded into mild confusion that they were still winning everything later that year, I remember reading a piece that declared the changing of the guard would happen in two years. Two years went by, then two more years after that, then another one, and still the transition isn’t complete. The tennis gods are trying to ease us out of the Big Three era as slowly as they possibly can. I have had ample time to get used to the idea of a tour without the all-time-greats who have dominated the tour for almost half their lives. And I think I’ll still be at least a little bit taken aback when that idea finally, inevitably, hardens into reality.

Rediscovering Rod Laver

By Nick Carter

Laver with the U.S. Open trophy in 1969. Screenshot: U.S. Open

The GOAT debate is a subject I can’t help myself on sometimes, to the point it was one of the first things I wrote about when I first joined Popcorn almost exactly a year ago. In short, I don’t think it can be settled solely by statistical achievements. Stats are the starting point for the conversation, to qualify the candidates. They confirm who the best players of each era were. However, to compare people who played decades apart is very difficult because the way the game is played has evolved over time. I don’t doubt that people who have been successful now could also have been in the past and vice versa. There’s no way of knowing for sure. For me, the greatest players are the ones who not only are the best in their sport but also transcend it. They are recognised by non-fans for their status or known for using their celebrity to be a force for change, either in their sport or even wider (although given most tennis players seem to be introverts, going beyond their specific sphere is rare). 

We are very fortunate in the current era of men’s tennis that three of the greatest male players of all time are pushing each other beyond limits established by history. However, they seem to be the only options for the grand GOAT mantle to recent generations of fans. Yes, they are breaking statistical records but those aren’t enough to fully understand a player’s impact and legacy. Hopefully there’s more pieces on players of the past to come, because their stories are fascinating. More than that, we should explore who else could be considered in the mix for the greatest tennis player of all time, even though that question cannot truly be answered. Greatness is timeless, and is not necessarily always improved upon with every generation.

Just over fifty years ago, on September 10th 1962, Rod Laver completed the ‘Grand Slam’ – winning all four majors in a calendar year – becoming the second man in history to do so. Laver was (and still is) seen as the ‘GOAT’ by many. Until Roger Federer came on the scene (and later Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic), such a title did not seem clear cut. Pete Sampras had the numerical record, but he never won Roland-Garros, let alone completed the Grand Slam. Bjorn Borg was probably the biggest tennis celebrity in history, but even his great rival John McEnroe called Laver the greatest.

Laver has a few unique distinctions, especially when it comes to his dominance during the 1960s. His 1962 ‘Grand Slam’ also included the Italian Open (now known as the Rome Masters), which at the time was regarded by some to have major status. He is the only man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ as a professional, something Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all fallen short of achieving. He is also the only man to have won the ‘Pro Slam’, winning all three of the biggest professional championships in the world in 1967 (four if you include a one-off high-profile event held at Wimbledon).

Here’s a quick history lesson for those who may be confused by this statement, as the biggest professional titles should be the four majors we know today: the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. However, they weren’t always tournaments for professional players, even though they were still the biggest prizes in tennis. Before 1968, they completely banned professional athletes from taking part. Now is not the time to go into the full history of amateur and professional status, but it is safe to say much of tennis back then was driven by greed, sexism and classism. All this despite the claim that the highest calling was to play sport for the sake of excellence, not for money. 

All this did was create a divide in tennis, from the 1930s to 1968, between the amateur and professional games. As soon as a player reached the top of the amateur game, and began consistently winning, he (and it was almost always a man) would be offered a lucrative contract to play professionally. As a result, the best players were on the professional tour, but the biggest prizes were on the amateur tour. It was like NFL teams and players not being allowed to play for the Super Bowl, Premier League teams not being allowed to compete for the FA Cup or the situation the Super League almost created where the biggest teams in Europe wouldn’t be able to compete in their domestic leagues or the Champions League. 

Rod Laver was caught up in all this, which is why despite winning the ‘Grand Slam’ twice, he has a total of 11 major singles titles, still tied at 6th with Bjorn Borg on the all-time list. However, the Pros had their own ‘majors’ until ‘open tennis’ started and they faded in significance or just discontinued altogether. They were the US Pro Tennis Championships (on Indoor Hard and later Grass), the French Professional International Championships (on clay) and the Wembley Championships (on an indoor court made of wood). From turning pro in 1963 to returning to the ‘true’ majors in 1968, Laver won the biggest professional prizes in tennis a total of eight times. His first was the 1964 Wembley Championships and the final one was the 1967 US Pro championship, averaging at around 2 per year during those four seasons. If you treat these as of similar status to majors, then Laver’s total would go up to 19. Add in a one-off professional event hosted at Wimbledon in 1967 (part-organised by the BBC) at which all the top players appeared, and you can increase the total to 20, which is in the same league as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. There will always be an asterisk to this, as three opportunities to win a major every year is very different to four. Who knows, if Laver had the opportunity, maybe he could have won over 20 majors. Even so, he is recorded as winning a record 200 titles in his career, which is a number no one is ever likely to reach again. This is where comparison issues come in once again, as records of most results before 1968 are difficult to find, especially for amateur events. However, these results are enough that Laver’s record should be enough to include him in the conversation for greatest (male) player of all time. 

Like today’s ‘Big 3’, Laver had a rival: fellow Australian Ken Rosewall. Rosewall also could have had ‘Big 3’ level of major titles, having won eight ‘official’ ones and 15 ‘pro’ ones over a 20-year period, bringing him to a total of 23 big titles. Ken was a few years older than Rod, having won majors as an amateur before turning pro in the late 1950s. At first, he had the measure of Laver when the latter first turned pro, however from 1964 onwards Rod turned the tables as he dominated the professional scene, edging the head-to-head when they finished their careers. Even though Rosewall had the edge on clay, Laver still managed to nick a couple of big titles on the surface from him (including the 1969 Roland-Garros title). The 1960s were similar to recent great decades of tennis in that respect, with exceptional players pushing each other to greater heights.

Recently, Jeff Sackman of Tennis Abstract used his ELO rating system to rank players throughout the last century in his “Heavy Topspin” blog, and placed Laver at the top of the list. ELO is calculated based on wins and losses against opponents, weighted depending on their own rating. Despite often losing to his rivals initially, Laver would turn the tables over the years to finish with the advantage. His two calendar slams probably also boosted his rating. This was impressive given the quality of players he came up against. As a pro he faced Rosewall and the legendary Richard Gonzales and Lew Hoad, but also Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe. All great players, yet Laver had an edge over his peers that, according to Sackmann’s method, no player in other eras appears to have had.  

With this context, now we need to look at Laver’s game to see what he brought and how it might have influenced the sport. Laver was at his peak when wooden racquets were used, even though more recognisably modern technology was just around the corner. Watching the gameplay from the 1960s and 1970s, contact points were smaller (as were racquet heads) and string tensions were a bit higher but still gave tremendous feel and power due to being made of gut rather than a polyester hybrid. Follow-throughs on strokes seemed less extreme, especially on the backhand, players seeming able to produce plenty of controlled and effective shots with shorter swings. There is an assumption that it was serve-volley dominated, but this was something more seen in the 1990s. Serve-and-volley was important then, but players demonstrated much more of an all-court game. That is, they used every part of the court they could, whether in position or placement. Baseline and net play were mixed together, often in the same rally. Likewise, there was plenty of variety in shot selection as well. The pace was also very different–a shot clock definitely wouldn’t have been necessary as the players were almost instantly ready for the next point.

Fortunately, there’s some footage of Laver out there so we can see how he played, including the full final of the 1969 US Open where he beat Tony Roche to win his second calendar ‘Grand Slam’. It’s not a classic, neither player seemed to be at their best and the conditions weren’t great, the match taking place on a damp grass court. There was also a bit of controversy as Laver had an advantage over Roche in terms of his footwear from midway through the first set onwards. It was definitely nowhere near as intriguing as their Australian Open semifinal epic earlier in the year, but at least it was competitive for a set and you can see Laver producing some magic as the match went on. It is worth watching if you want to get a feel for the era and see beyond the highlights and watch a full match involving a past legend, and it’s the best quality footage out there. 

Three things stood out to me when watching Laver’s highlights: his forehand, backhand and movement. He was great at all aspects of the game, of course. The serve was powerful and precise, the volleys silky smooth yet brutally effective. His return was so good too, often setting him up well for a point, only really missing in off-moments. But it was these three aspects that jumped out the most.

Laver’s forehand (a lefty) produced an incredible amount of power at times, able to hit winners from anywhere on the court if given any opportunity. This was due to his massive left forearm. Watching it in action, it’s easy to forget the racquet he is using is very different to the ones used by the tour today. Most players wisely kept the ball away from that wing as much as they could. The backhand, a single-hander as was standard at the time, is a fascinating stroke. Laver could produce a startling variety of shots on the backhand, which very few players of any era can replicate. He could hit through it with pace, add some wicked slice or add any form of spin to extend the rally and give him any edge he could find. In fact, he had incredible feel on the ball from both wings. It was all in the wrist, and the spin he played with was impressive especially for the time.

Rod was known as “The Rocket” not just because of his power but also because of his speed around the court, and it is easy to see why (though it may have originally been an ironic nickname). He seemed able to run down any ball, making him very hard to hit through. It was very much the cornerstone of his game. Not only that, he could somehow hit winners from a defensive position, or hit wonderful shots from less than ideal angles. However, he could still get pretty much anywhere he needed to. (Which was necessary for a man only 5’8’’, which is short compared to most players, even from his era.)

According to former ATP Tour player John Bartlett, whose career began in the latter years of Laver’s dominance: “As a player, he was doing a lot of things that the modern players are doing. He hit with enormous top spin and power, with a wood racquet.” As a 21st century viewer, I can see this. Bartlett also had an opportunity to practice with Laver once during his career. “When he hit a backhand, he turned so much, all you could see was his back. He also teed off on every ball, and just put varying amounts of topspin on.” Laver was clearly an incredibly versatile player and incredibly skilled with his wrist and ability to control a tennis ball.

Sometimes, Laver could realise where to go milliseconds before striking a shot. He could hit winners if he saw the opportunity but he wasn’t looking to always hit an overly aggressive shot. He was an excellent frontrunner in matches, using this mindset to establish dominance. This didn’t mean he was immune to errors or nerves, but like other greats, he managed them better than most. Even when he was behind, he grew more motivated rather than less, continuing to search for anything that would give him a solid footing in the match. Like many other great players, he could raise his game and come up with something special when needed. If you wanted to win against Rod Laver, you had to go out and beat him.

All of these attributes have been ascribed to one or all of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in recent years as well, be it aggression, movement or determination. If you gave prime Laver a modern racquet, he’d probably adjust pretty quickly to the current era. Watching him, you can see where John McEnroe got his inspiration (although the Australian was far better behaved on court). No one at the time seemed to produce tennis like he could. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any other player like him, especially on the backhand wing.

It is clear that Laver has had a massive impact on the sport. Greats tend to be either innovators (Suzanne Lenglen) or perfectors (Novak Djokovic). Arguably, Laver was both, mastering all aspects of the game, whilst his spin-heavy style made him a leader amongst his generation. No wonder players like McEnroe, Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal all looked to him as a role model in attitude and play style, despite being from different generations. He didn’t just inspire the greats, plenty of people picked up a racquet because of him. 

Greats go beyond achievements in an arena. As Laver began to wind down his playing career through his 30s, he began to focus more on growing the sport. He wrote several books, provided coaching and set up clubs for people to try out tennis. Unsurprisingly, he is incredibly knowledgeable about the sport, really understanding what it means to play well. As a result, Laver helped continue to inspire people beyond the stadiums and the television sets. (Baseline Tennis did a great video on his impact on tennis.) 

However, Laver eventually withdrew from tennis as much as he could, trying to live a quiet life in the US. Off the court, he was a mild-mannered man. Despite being a ruthless competitor and revolutionary on court, he was still a traditional tennis gentleman and this earned him plenty of respect from his peers and tennis figures across the generations. The humility he has still comes across today, yet with an incredible tennis brain that gives him great insight into the game and probably was a big part of his edge as a player.

This humility and quietness means that whilst he is willing to do occasional interviews or be a guest of honour at the Australian or US Opens, generally he prefers to stay out of the public eye. When he does talk to Australian media, it’s often to comment on the nation’s current generation of players. He has praised Ash Barty, although his comments on Nick Kyrgios have been more mixed. I asked Australian journalist Todd Scoullar about Laver’s reputation in Australia, as sports stars’ impact is often more at home: “He is greatly revered in Australia and I would definitely say the majority of sports fans know who he is. And obviously because one of our most widely used stadiums is named after him, it’s probably fair to say the majority of the population know who he is. Whether they know exactly what his achievements are, it’s hard to say.”

Nowadays, Laver has faded into legend. The great man is still with us, but there are generations of fans who never saw him play live. It is definitely true that the greats are most appreciated in their time. The excitement is always focused on the here and now, whilst the past is stored in record books, grainy footage and faded memories. To remain relevant, either you set unbreakable records that fans and media continue to care about, or you set yourself apart through character and endeavours outside of playing a sport. Rod Laver will keep himself in the conversation of all-time greats for as long as he is the last man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ and as long as he is the only man to have done it twice. However, it’s worth going and looking at why he remains an all-time great, you won’t be disappointed. You will find him to be the prototype of the modern player in so many ways, whilst still wonderfully unique and a breath of fresh air for a modern fan. We need to keep players like Laver in discussion about the ‘greatest’ athletes in our sport, and not get swept up in the moment. No one has to draw a definitive conclusion, but just remember that “Rocket” has a very good case.

You can read Jeff Sackmann’s full piece on Laver here: https://www.tennisabstract.com/blog/2022/12/21/the-tennis-128-no-1-rod-laver/

Reliving Nadal-Medvedev at the Australian Open

Screenshot: Australian Open

The 2022 Australian Open final between Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal wasn’t just one of the better matches of the year, it may have been the most pivotal. In winning from two sets (and 2-3, love-40 in the third) down, Nadal secured his 21st major title, which broke a tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at 20. Much of Nadal’s momentum in his 20-match winning streak to begin this year also likely originated from winning that unlikely title. Medvedev, meanwhile, has struggled since losing his choke hold on the final. He’s won a couple small titles, but for the most part, he has failed to play his best, and it’s cost him: He no longer has control over his rivalries with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev and his ranking has fallen from first to seventh.

In the five hours and 24 minutes it took to decide that Australian Open final, forehands and backhands were hit that are still having an impact on the tour nearly 11 months later. With the next Australian Open not too far away, I wanted to return to the fateful match. Did Medvedev choke? If so, what was the moment? How did Nadal turn things around? I rewatched the final and kept a running log of my thoughts below. Time stamps correspond to the video below in case you want to revisit an important moment.

0:13: Nadal plays a very strong first point, scything a couple crosscourt forehands at extreme angles. Medvedev is yanked far enough off the court by the second one that he has to guess where the next ball is going, and Nadal flicks a winner past him. The narrative going into this match was that if Nadal were to win, he’d have to do it economically, so the opening point seemed like an ideal start.

6:15: Nadal holds after one deuce. It took six minutes.

7:33: An interesting wrinkle on the first point of Medvedev’s service game: midway through the rally, on a seemingly neutral ball, Nadal jacks a crosscourt backhand as hard as he can, drawing oohs from the crowd. But what the backhand has in pace it lacks in aggressive placement, so Medvedev gets it back fairly easily, and goes on to win the point.

11:20: At 1-all, love-15 on Nadal’s serve, the first alarm bells go off for the Spaniard. Medvedev locks him in a 26-shot rally — not ideal given Medvedev had looked by far the fitter player earlier in the tournament — and blasts a backhand winner down the line.

I remember watching most of Nadal’s matches this tournament, and it’s hard to overstate the doubts about his fitness levels. He had flirted with blowing two-set leads all tournament — he lost the third to Karen Khachanov, the third and the fourth to Denis Shapovalov, who may have beaten him had he not completely crumbled in the fifth set, and the third to Matteo Berrettini. He seemed to be tiring regularly in third sets, even when he had the lead. Personally, against Medvedev, I gave Nadal next to no chance of winning. Even if he could build a lead — which would be way harder against Medvedev than against the players he had already beaten — I thought he would have a hard time closing out the match.

13:00: With a love-30 lead on Nadal’s serve, Medvedev has a putaway right on top of the net, but he smashes it down the middle and Nadal’s long left arm somehow flicks a forehand past the onrushing octopus. It gets Nadal to 15-30 and he eventually holds, but at the time, the hold felt tenuous. The way Nadal was winning points didn’t seem sustainable at all, while Medvedev’s rock-solid baselining looked as reproducible as anything.

13:00: It’s worth mentioning here that early on, Medvedev looks totally unperturbed. Nadal had used the slice to disrupt his rhythm in the past, but Medvedev was impervious to it at the start of this match. With a previously useful tool for Nadal apparently no longer effective, his odds looked even more daunting.

24:43: Through four games, the average rally length is 8 shots.

28:30: In Nadal’s 2-all service game, Medvedev hits two winners and Nadal misses two backhands. Medvedev breaks at love in what feels like sixty seconds.

36:10: Nadal double faults twice in a row to begin the 2-4 game, looking considerably rattled at this point.

36:50: In the next rally, Nadal curls a forehand down the line that brushes the outside of the sideline. Medvedev returns it. Lost for ideas, Nadal tries either a short slice or a bad drop shot, and Medvedev easily runs it down and puts it away. The rally feels decisive — like Medvedev’s defense had reached a point where the court wasn’t wide enough for Nadal to hit a winner against him.

What’s remarkable about Medvedev’s get here is that he doesn’t even have to work that hard to get to the ball. He slides after making contact, but only barely. His defense is just astonishing at its best. Screenshot: Australian Open

41:34: Medvedev serves out the set, 6-2. He won 16 of the last 18 points of the set, broke Nadal at love twice in a row, and lost six total points on serve.

What sticks out in rewatching the match at this point is that Nadal definitely started playing better to get his teeth into the final, but Medvedev had to start playing worse as well. The Russian’s execution in the first set was absurdly tight, and once Nadal’s well of hot shots dried up, the opener was a rout. I had thought at the time that Medvedev — who was coming off his first major title and a generally strong indoor season — was ready to seriously take it to Djokovic and Nadal by winning a second straight major. In the first set, he looked every bit like the best player in the world. Alas, his level didn’t last, and neither did his momentum.

Set 2

43:00: A stat from the good folks at the Australian Open: 38% of Nadal’s first serves went unreturned in his first six rounds; just 14% got him free points in the first set against Medvedev.

49:02: With Medvedev serving at 0-1, 15-love in the second set, Nadal gets back a huge serve and gets into the rally. He crushes a forehand down the line with a louder-than-usual grunt. Medvedev defends, neutralizes, and forces a Nadal backhand error on the 19th shot of the point. It feels like another demoralizing blow to Nadal. When you combine Medvedev’s long rally prowess with his big first serve — he hits his fifth ace later in the game; Nadal is yet to get a single one — it is hard to imagine Medvedev losing the match. Or any match on hard court.

54:05: As of 1-1, 30-15 in the second set, Nadal has hit 20 unforced errors. This feels high; he’s been relatively aggressive, but not to the degree he needs to be to seriously trouble Medvedev’s defenses. Medvedev has 7, an average of less than one per game.

1:00:25: We get the first momentum shift in Nadal’s favor, as the Spaniard wins a 40-shot rally with an insane backhand drop shot. The shot comes out of nowhere: Medvedev hit a very solid crosscourt forehand and Nadal, slightly on the stretch, reached to his right with an almost casual motion and feathered the winner over the net. The crowd goes nuts. Nadal gets to 15-40 on Medvedev’s serve with the rally, the first time he’s seen a break point all match. The point is also contradictory of the match preview and the match so far: it was the longest rally of the match — advantage Medvedev — but Nadal seemed fine physically and finished it off with a touch of brilliance.

1:05:59: Having broken serve for the first time in the previous game, Nadal consolidates at love to go up 4-1, and now the match really does feel different. Medvedev’s airtight baselining has tapered off a bit, and in conjunction with the 40-shot rally, Nadal has serious momentum.

1:08:54: Medvedev is making 80% of his first serves; Nadal is at 50%. Deeply impressive on the part of the former, but also perhaps a sign of how the match could change if Medvedev’s well-above-average execution dovetails even slightly.

1:11:00: Nadal begins his 4-2 service game with a forehand error, then Medvedev sizzles a backhand winner down the line. At love-30, Nadal hits a crazy second serve — a spin-loaded comet that swerves visibly and barely brushes the T — and Medvedev still gets it back. Though Nadal puts away the next shot, the match is back to feeling like it’s on Medvedev’s terms.

1:13:54: Medvedev breaks back, Nadal’s amazing second serve responsible for the only point the Spaniard won in the game.

1:19:54: Medvedev totally loses his first serve in the 3-4 game. Nadal breaks at 30, pushing his opponent back with a big inside-out forehand and finishing with a drop shot that leaves Medvedev slipping and sliding on the Melbourne letters behind the baseline. With the set feeling like a must-win stanza for Nadal at the time (obviously a bad take in hindsight), the break felt huge.

1:27:00: At some point during the 5-3 game, it becomes clear that Nadal just isn’t playing well enough. He fights through a bunch of break points with winners, and there’s a moment where it seems like he’s going to win the set. But despite having a set point, Nadal ends up getting broken, and not because of a burst of brilliance from Medvedev. While the Spaniard is playing plenty of coherent points, errors are seeping into his game consistently. This game had a shanked forehand, a missed smash, and an errant backhand pass with most of the court open.

1:42:30: It must be said at this point: this is not a classic tennis match. In Nadal’s 5-all game, the Spaniard hits a number of great shots, but more and more of his groundstrokes are falling short. Some of them, jarringly, are landing halfway up the net. I remember feeling frustrated for Nadal when I watched this part of the match at around 4:30 on a Sunday morning in January: all that heartbreak for Nadal in previous Australian Open finals, this unlikely run to one last title match, and here he had shown up with nothing close to his best. Whether nerves or fatigue were responsible I had no idea, but Nadal looked as irritated as anyone. Despite Nadal escaping with the hold, I thought the game was a bad omen for his future in the final.

1:52:34: At 5-6, 30-all, two points away from giving up the second set to Nadal, Medvedev flings an ace down the middle. He holds. At the time, when the second set went to a tiebreak, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Nadal lost the breaker and won the match. It wasn’t just that overcoming a two-set lead against Medvedev would be extremely difficult, it was that the second set was brutally long, and I didn’t like Nadal’s odds of playing three more competitive sets against Medvedev without completely gassing out, much less winning them.

1:59:18: Nadal grabs a mini-break at 3-all with a solid backhand return followed by an inside-in forehand that comes pretty close to both lines. It’s a great play; at this point, it seems like raw (and accurate) aggression is the only route to a Nadal win.

2:01:08: At 5-3 and 5-4 up in the tiebreak, Nadal comes to net — not behind bad shots, either — and both times, Medvedev hits good passes that force Nadal into errors. After drawing Nadal to net with a drop shot and ramming a backhand past him, Medvedev has set point. Nadal hasn’t made the most of his chances this set, but I don’t think he did much wrong here; Medvedev just entered a purple patch at a great time.

2:03:43: Had Medvedev won the match, the set point in the second set might have become the most famous point of the final. Nadal plays a clearheaded point: forehand crosscourt, forehand down the line, backhand volley into the open court. He executed all the shots pretty well. Against most other players, it probably would have been enough. Against Medvedev, it wasn’t even close — the Russian’s lightning-quick legs see him get back both forehands, then get him in position for a clean backhand pass down the line so easily that he doesn’t even really have to slide into the shot. Medvedev celebrates emphatically; the crowd cheers and then boos as they, for whatever reason, feel that an extended celebration of a brilliant shot is unsportsmanlike. The match seems over.

Medvedev asks for approval from the unforgiving crowd following his sensational defense on set point. Screenshot: Australian Open

Set 3

2:08:35: Nadal is clearly going for more on his forehand in the first game of the third set. He’s letting it fly, scything through the shot rather than looping it, and the extra aggression helps a bit. He opens up a 15-30 lead, then a massive inside-out forehand gives him a putaway right on the service line. Nadal crushes it inside-in — only Medvedev is waiting in the corner and backhands the ball right past Nadal. It’s a demoralizing blow to the Spaniard, who had bossed a couple rallies in a row.

One stat Nadal leads comfortably through the whole match is forehand winners, and it’s here that we can see one of the few holes in Medvedev’s game. Ideally, a player uses their forehand as a sword — their primary weapon — and their backhand as a shield, a solid wing that won’t break down. It’s not that having a powerful backhand is impossible, but the forehand, being hit with the dominant arm, is usually the much more explosive shot. But Medvedev’s forehand, in this match (and probably in general), is less effective than his backhand at hitting winners. His backhand is absolutely superb and does score him quite a few winners, but I don’t think a player should want or have to count on their less powerful wing to deliver point-ending shots. When Nadal’s own backhand levels up midway through the match, he’s capable of killing a point with both wings, giving him a significant advantage in firepower over Medvedev.

It’s not that Medvedev’s forehand weakness is destroying him — he’s a set away from winning the Australian Open title. But as the match wears on, his inability to finish points consistently with that shot hurts him more and more. (See break point at 5-all in the fifth set.)

Nadal keeps blasting away through the game, eventually bringing up break point. He gets in a really deep return only to follow it with a blown forehand, and his reaction afterwards says it all.

Screenshot: Australian Open

Medvedev holds. It’s here that we get the now-famous shot of the Infosys win predictor: from 36% before the match, Nadal is now deemed to have a 4% chance of winning.

2:18:14: Medvedev strings together a pair of forehand winners to go up love-30 in Nadal’s 0-1 service game. But Nadal is able to hold, slinging some point-ending forehands and a big serve. His one-point-at-a-time mentality is on display here — there’s every reason for him to get demoralized at this stage, having lost a heartbreakingly close second set, missing a break point in the previous game, and falling behind in his first service game of the third. Yet Nadal stays calm, hits some spots, and digs out the hold. It’s a small victory in the moment, but one whose significance is magnified in retrospect.

2:23:54: Medvedev does a beautiful job of dictating a point, hammering a backhand down the line before forcing Nadal’s error with some fine angled forehands. Nadal hunches over for a second after the rally, planting his racket head on his left foot and leaning forward slightly. I had missed this on the first watch, but it’s little details like this that, besides the scoreline, made a Medvedev win look inevitable.

2:29:24: Two and a half sets into this match, the average rally length is still a brutally long 7 shots. A little later, we see a graphic that says Medvedev is winning 58% of 0-4 shot rallies, 49% of 5-9 shot rallies, and 61% of 9+ shot rallies. From Nadal’s perspective, what’s the proper countermeasure? He’s not dominating in any metric, and in both long and short points, he’s getting demolished. Medvedev has had a solid edge in both the serve-return battle and the toughest rallies.

2:32:16: Another gut-wrenching moment for Nadal. He hits a spectacular inside-out forehand return to begin Medvedev’s 2-all service game. It affords him a very short forehand, which he rips crosscourt. But Medvedev reads it perfectly and passes him with a clean crosscourt backhand. The story of Nadal’s performance so far is that he hasn’t been consistently good enough, but even when he has come up with the goods, Medvedev has had the answers. Nadal’s back-against-the-wall moment won’t come until the next game, but this moment felt as deflating as anything for the Spaniard.

2:37:20: Nadal’s plight peaks in his 2-3 service game. At love-30, Medvedev returns a Nadal smash that was hit right on top of the net, works the rally perfectly, and scorches a backhand winner down the line. Nadal is now trailing 2-6, 6-7 (5), 2-3, love-40. In a match with many inflection points, this one is the ultimate, so it’s worth doing some point-by-point analysis of what’s to follow.

Break point #1: Nadal gets in a first serve, pushes Medvedev back with a crosscourt forehand, then feathers a drop shot winner over the net. Nothing Medvedev could have done there. Nadal allows himself a fist pump and grits his teeth.

Break point #2: Medvedev gets great depth, forcing Nadal into a short backhand, but the Russian misses an aggressive crosscourt backhand long. It’s a bad miss, but not one I ever would have expected to potentially cost Medvedev the match.

Break point #3: Medvedev tries a drop shot, which isn’t a terrible idea — he was on the baseline; Nadal way behind his — but the execution is way off. Nadal gets to the ball easily and chops a backhand slice crosscourt that Medvedev bunts into the net.

So we can certainly point to things Medvedev could have done better on the second and third break points. But he didn’t exactly throw away either point, and he hadn’t been playing all the previous big points exceptionally well, especially in the second set. Not breaking in this game was not a choke; from love-40 down, Nadal didn’t make an unforced error for the rest of the game. The Spaniard getting out of this game was inarguably a momentum shift, but in the moment, I imagined that it would lead to Nadal winning a set at most. At 3-all in the third, Medvedev still seemed to be well in control of the match.

2:47:12: At 3-all, 30-15, Medvedev horrendously biffs a backhand putaway while mere feet away from the net. It felt big in the moment, but he responds with a beautiful angled backhand winner, then a crosscourt forehand winner to hold.

2:54:35: To me, this match really starts to turn during Medvedev’s 4-all service game. Nadal begins with a stunning backhand pass, but starting at 15-30, Medvedev has a breakdown. From right on top of the net, he only needs to put a drop shot in play for it to be a winner, but he taps the ball into the net, then immediately starts sarcastically applauding the pro-Nadal crowd’s cheers. Medvedev plays the 15-40 point almost lackadaisically (though escapes due to some insane defense). And at 30-40, Medvedev approaches Nadal’s backhand again. The Spaniard has all the time in the world to measure a bullet down the line, which he sends flying past Medvedev. Crowd goes nuts.

Screenshot: Australian Open

3:00:22: Nadal serves out the set with four straight winners: inside-in forehand, crosscourt forehand, backhand down the line, inside-in forehand. It’s an intimidating sequence, and maybe the first time all match Nadal has really buckled down successfully with the crunch on. I still thought the final was Medvedev’s in the moment, but this stretch made me think he would have to recover his godly first-set level to get across the line.

A quick word on the crowd: they were not great. Medvedev’s sarcastic clapping in the 4-all game was warranted. The typical reaction to a botched drop shot as bad as Medvedev’s is a gasp of shock; here, the fans shrieked in elation. Even Nadal had to acknowledge them — before set point at 5-4, 40-love, he held up his hand to silence the crowd before serving. Cheering your favorite player is one thing, doing so at the expense of their opponent feels excessive. There wasn’t much that could have been done to manage the situation, but spare a thought for Medvedev.

Back to the tennis. Though Medvedev’s biggest chance in this set was at 3-2, I’d say his biggest level dip was at 4-all — he made a series of puzzling decisions in the game, from multiple drop shots (one missed, one Nadal ran down easily) to approaching Nadal’s backhand behind a substandard forehand on break point. Medvedev had held his previous six service games; this one got away at least in part by his own hand.

Set 4

3:08:13: A sign of Medvedev fatigue: serving at 0-1, Nadal bosses a rally, setting up a midcourt forehand. Like he did a couple times in the third set, Medvedev reads that Nadal is going crosscourt and camps out in his backhand corner. But here, he’s slower to get to the ball, and can only poke back a defensive shot with one hand on the racket. Nadal duly finishes the point with a winner. On the earlier points, Medvedev had hit clean crosscourt passing shots off virtually the exact same ball.

3:12:58: Medvedev gets to break point for 2-0, but Nadal sizzles a forehand winner down the line (from a very deep position you wouldn’t usually expect a winner from) to save. On his next break point, Medvedev misses a regulation backhand. It’s a nice microcosm of how this match turned around: it wasn’t solely Nadal brilliance or Medvedev failing to take his chances, it was both.

3:15:20: Medvedev’s lack of a reliable finishing weapon is really starting to cost him. At deuce in Nadal’s 0-1 service game, he has a look at a pretty neutral backhand volley. Trying to slice it short into the ad court, Medvedev misjudges the ball so badly that it bounces before even reaching the net. Between this, his often iffy offensive forehand, and his fatiguing legs, the balance is shifting towards Nadal in the rallies.

3:21:28: Medvedev double faults to drop serve at 1-all. He gets his quads massaged on the changeover.

3:24:20: Mark Petchey makes a great point on the broadcast: Medvedev is struggling physically, but the only way to rush Nadal is to hit the ball hard, which requires more energy. I’ve long thought that Nadal is one of the worst opponents to get tired against for this very reason. He’s difficult enough to play in even rallies, but if your rally ball loses even a fraction of juice, he’ll start hitting the ball to whatever corner he wants. Then you become even more gassed as you’re forced to do more running. Rushing him is absolutely key. Not long after Petchey says this, Nadal starts hammering backhand winners down the line with alarming regularity, which is usually a rarity for him.

3:34:22: Having dug out of love-40 at 2-all, Medvedev gets to game point. He has a look at a baseline overhead and shanks it way past the baseline. It’s moments like these that stick out on the rewatch — Medvedev could have put himself three games away from the title, and given that he had been down a break at 1-2 in this set, going up 3-2 would have handed him some serious momentum with the finish line approaching.

3:35:36: Medvedev saves another break point at 2-all, actually managing to dictate a point with his forehand. He finishes with a winner inside-in after dragging Nadal across the baseline a few times. The problem is, you can see how much effort this requires from Medvedev — he doesn’t have Nadal’s f-u power from the forehand, so he has to throw his entire body into every shot. At this point in this match, it’s clear that outside of his serve, he doesn’t have a way to win points economically, which is a big problem if he’s fatiguing.

3:39:25: Nadal finally breaks in the 2-all game on chance #7, pulling Medvedev to net with a drop shot and angling a backhand pass way beyond his reach.

Nadal celebrates. Screenshot: Australian Open

3:41:42: Interestingly, though Nadal has won the third set and is up a break in the fourth, the Infosys win predictor now only gives him a 10% chance of winning. Remember, when the score was 2-6, 6-7, 0-1, Nadal was at 4%, so winning the third set and going up a break in the fourth is apparently only worth six percentage points. (Interesting to think of what the win predictor would have said when Nadal was down 2-3, love-40 in the third set — 1%?)

Alternative theory: the win predictor kind of sucks.

3:44:35: Nadal has a little god mode moment at 3-2. Up 30-15, he half-volleys a deep return into the opposite corner for an inside-out forehand winner. Though Nadal is capable of this type of shot, he doesn’t hit it often — his forehand is at his best when he has time to load up for a haymaker swing; the half-volley winner is a shot associated much more with the recently retired (and much-missed) Roger Federer. But Nadal nails it here, then closes out the game with a low volley that travels at an angle almost parallel to the net. Medvedev doesn’t bother chasing it.

3:49:49: To give you an idea of the ebbs and flows in this match, Nadal begins his next service game by shockingly missing two identical, bread-and-butter crosscourt forehands. He falls behind 15-40, but erases the break points in about the same time it took Elon Musk to lose all his credibility while trying to run Twitter.

At deuce, they play an instructive rally. Nadal is dictating, and though Medvedev has time to set up behind a couple of his shots, the depth on his groundstrokes has vanished a little bit. It’s a recipe for disaster: Nadal yanks him into his forehand corner, then wrong-foots him with an inside-out forehand winner.

3:56:20: With Medvedev serving at 3-5, 30-15, Nadal returns a perfect T serve, then scorches a backhand winner down the line when Medvedev tries to approach the net. At 30-all, Nadal blasts a backhand crosscourt with incredible weight and pace even if it comes nowhere near the lines — it staggers Medvedev a little bit — then murders another winner down the line. When Nadal plays like this, I want to say he can still give Djokovic hell on a hard court, 19-set losing streak to the Serb on the surface be damned. Nadal looks unstoppable when he hits his weaker groundstroke this well.

You can see Medvedev’s resigned body language here as he doesn’t even attempt to chase Nadal’s rocket backhand. Screenshot: Australian Open

4:03:33: Nadal serves the set out at love to send the match to a fifth.

Set 5

4:05:27: Medvedev serves to open the fifth. At 15-all, he volleys to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. At 30-all, he approaches to Nadal’s forehand. He gets passed down the line. This is where I started to think Nadal would win when I watched this match live: you don’t approach to Nadal’s forehand, and you definitely don’t screw around by trying it multiple times early in a fifth set. Medvedev had either lost his mind or his legs, and either one could prove fatal.

Medvedev ends up holding with a bunch of good serves, but I remember this game leaving me seriously concerned for his prospects at the time.

4:12:55: Nadal has started to win what seems like every point that goes beyond three or four shots. He wins a long one to hold for 1-all.

4:16:46: Some stats: Medvedev has run 4.64 kilometers in the match so far to Nadal’s 4.28, and has done 56 “sprints” to Nadal’s 30. A possible reason for his physical deficit despite his younger body.

Regardless of any stats that can help explain it, I have to comment on Nadal’s remarkable durability in this match. With the exception of his really shaky period late in the second set when he was hitting groundstrokes halfway up the net, he’s looked just fine physically. His performance in long rallies has actually gotten better as the match has gone on. I hadn’t anticipated Nadal holding up this well before the match given his age deficit and Medvedev’s significantly better physical performance before the final. As far as I know, no one else picked Nadal to outlast the then-25-year-old either. The fact that he did is incredible.

4:21:48: At 2-all, 30-15, Nadal returns a second serve deep, Medvedev’s backhand has no pace whatsoever on it, and Nadal blisters an inside-out forehand winner. Medvedev’s first serve is carrying him on its back; whenever he misses, he’s losing the point. Medvedev is serving phenomenally well so far in the fifth set — this was just the third time he had missed a first serve — but he’s lost all three of those second serve points. The accurate first serving is clearly unsustainable; it feels inevitable that Medvedev will eventually start missing due to the pressure or just lose his rhythm.

4:23:40: Facing break point at 2-all, Medvedev misses his first serve. He rallies pretty well, hitting an inside-out backhand and a decent forehand down the line. The only problem? Nadal slices back the former and chases down the latter, delivering his patented running forehand down the line. It kisses the sideline for a winner, Medvedev nowhere near it. Mark Petchey says that it’s the best shot Nadal has ever hit. (In terms of skill required to make a shot, Nadal has hit ones that are miles better, but in terms of that balanced with importance, this one is certainly up there.)

At the time, Nadal’s shot selection confused me, despite the fact that he had hit a brilliant winner. He had been winning every rally with relative ease, so why take a chance on a coin-flip forehand? It would have been easy enough to neutralize Medvedev’s shot with a forehand crosscourt, then to slowly break down the Russian in the rally from there. That exact technique had been working all through the fifth set. I still don’t know why Nadal went for the forehand he did, but it worked, so he doesn’t need a reason. This is probably one of the many reasons why Nadal has 22 major titles and I’m sitting on my bed writing a “live” diary of a match he played ten and a half months ago.

Nadal makes contact with the fateful forehand. Screenshot: Australian Open

Another thing: this is the first time Nadal has had the lead in the match since 2-1 (on serve) in the first set.

4:34:53: Nadal has a handful of game points at 3-2, but can’t close out the game, and Medvedev gets a look at three break points. Luckily for Nadal — and for no discernible reason — Medvedev’s backhand return, usually his stronger wing, goes haywire. He misses backhand returns on all three break points, and only one of them can clearly count as a forced error. Nadal’s first serves on the other two had been pretty ordinary. A stat shows that Medvedev made 97% of his returns in the fourth set (a set he lost, remember) and is down to a dire 60% in the fifth. It’s a bad time for Medvedev to lose his rhythm on the return; after all the missed game points earlier in the game, Nadal was getting a bit nervy. He holds for 4-2.

This is an interesting game to observe Nadal play, because he’s fighting himself as well as his opponent. He lost the 2012 Australian Open final to Djokovic and the 2017 final to Federer from this exact position: a break up in the fifth set. With Nadal at age 35 and in his first Australian Open final in three years, this match had the potential to be his most heartbreaking final loss in Melbourne yet. Even as he maintained the break lead, it felt like there was a twist coming.

4:44:43: With Nadal serving at 4-3, 15-love, the match clock hits five hours. It’s insane to think how long this match ended up being (at five hours and 24 minutes, it is the second-longest in Nadal’s career behind the 2012 Australian Open final, and it’s the longest in Medvedev’s career). The first set was even a relative rout at 6-2. Imagine if that set had gone to a tiebreak.

4:54:34: Nadal steps to the line to serve for his second Australian Open title and 21st major overall. I don’t think anyone expected this game to be straightforward, but at first, it looked like it might be: Nadal starts with a big serve for 15-love, then whacks a very aggressive forehand to set up an easy volley.

4:56:05: …and then the other shoe drops. Nadal makes a forehand error, then double faults. Medvedev goes on the attack at 30-all with a backhand down the line and a crosscourt forehand and whips away an easy smash. At break point, when Nadal is typically so clutch, he makes a good wide serve, hits an inside-out forehand, then takes on a crosscourt backhand…and swipes it into the net. It is now 5-all in the fifth, Nadal’s lead erased, his chance to serve out the match gone. He bites his lower lip and smiles a little.

Medvedev breaks back. Screenshot: Australian Open

5:01:18: With Medvedev serving at 5-5, 30-15, they play what I consider to be a sneaky candidate for one of the biggest points of the match. Medvedev hits a huge serve down the middle that Nadal claws back short, then tries a drop shot to Nadal’s backhand that the Spaniard repels with his classic no-look backhand flick winner. Had Medvedev won the point, he’d have two game points for 6-5, meaning a likely hold of serve, meaning Nadal would have to win the match in a tiebreak. Not only had Nadal lost the second set tiebreak in this match, he hadn’t won a tiebreak against a top-ten player since the World Tour Finals in 2019. This isn’t to say Nadal couldn’t have broken from 40-15 down, or that he couldn’t have won a super-tiebreak. But the odds would have been stacked against him.

Instead: Nadal gets to 30-all. Medvedev never has a game point at 5-all. Nadal breaks and goes on to serve out the match in the following game.

5:02:51: At deuce in the 5-all game, Medvedev hits a short crosscourt backhand and immediately gets burned by Nadal’s forehand down the line. You can never, ever hit short to Nadal’s forehand and expect to emerge safely. But five hours and 10 minutes into this match, Medvedev’s shot quality suffering a little isn’t totally shocking. Again, Nadal is a bad opponent to tire against.

5:04:20: On the third break point of the game, Medvedev hits a perfect T serve. Had Nadal been leaning the other way, it would have been an ace. As it happens, Nadal — returning from well behind the Melbourne letters — gets back a sliced backhand return with decent depth. And here, Medvedev’s forehand weakness screws him. He doesn’t have the easy power for an effortless winner. He jumps as he makes contact in an effort to generate extra pace, but his inside-out forehand not only isn’t enough to get past Nadal, it lands beyond the baseline.

Check out where the serve lands. Screenshot: Australian Open

5:07:34: Again, Nadal finds himself at 30-love. I remember thinking the following point was massive as I watched this live: 40-love meant certain victory, 30-15 meant a possible repeat of the 5-4 game. Nadal smashes a serve out wide that clips the sideline and flies past Medvedev. It’s ruled his third ace. The let radar beeps, but — shockingly — no one seems to notice. The umpire doesn’t pick up on it, Medvedev doesn’t complain, Nadal doesn’t say anything, and the commentators don’t comment, either. I’d guess that the excruciating tension was responsible for everyone missing this, but the beep was clearly audible. An unfortunate moment for Medvedev.

5:08:39: In a point emblematic of how he’s developed over the years into a more aggressive player, Nadal hits his classic wide serve, then a big inside-out forehand, then races to net to put away a drop volley. Medvedev can’t get there. The crowd explodes, Nadal drops his racket and covers his face in euphoric disbelief. He has won his 21st major.

***

It’s hard to digest a match this long and this packed with plot twists. But I’ll try. First: was there a more emblematic way for Nadal to win his 21st major and second Australian Open? He had the final losses in 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019. He hadn’t played for the second half of 2021. In the match itself, he faced an enormous deficit, then, not unlike in 2012, he had an opportunity to close out the match and it had gone begging. And despite everything, Nadal managed to recover and drag himself across the line. He had won the tournament in 2009, but had experienced so much pain in Melbourne since that I imagine this felt like the first time he had lifted the trophy there.

Medvedev was very classy after the match, which he deserves all the credit in the world for. He mentioned that the crowd had diminished some of his previous enthusiasm for tennis (“the kid stopped dreaming”) and that from this point on, he was going to be playing for himself rather than any fans. In terms of the match, though, Medvedev seemed remarkably centered, saying largely what I did above: that he was disappointed not to close out the match, but didn’t think he choked. Some of the weaknesses in his game — the attacking forehand, the touch at net and on the drop shot — were rather noticeable. But that was likely expected going into a major final against a difficult opponent. Still, I’d be shocked if a few moments in the final three sets didn’t take up camp in Medvedev’s mind every now and then.

Medvedev’s game has sadly deteriorated since this match. I don’t think he’s played as well as he did in the first set of this final in the past 10 months and change. He got another shot at Nadal in Acapulco and lost 6-3, 6-3, going 0/11 on break points. He got a hernia, then got trounced by Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros (I was at this match, and though peak Čilić lives up to absolutely all the hype, it was jarring that Medvedev was never really in the match). He wasn’t allowed to play Wimbledon. He failed to defend his U.S. Open title, losing comfortably to Nick Kyrgios. His typically awesome serve has randomly malfunctioned a few times, giving up over 10 double faults in a couple matches. Though Medvedev won a couple small titles, there are few other good things to say about his year. His trio of final-set tiebreak losses at the World Tour Finals felt almost gratuitously emblematic of his season.

I can’t see inside Medvedev’s head — maybe he is completely over the Australian Open final and his form can be chalked up to other things — but it’s hard not to trace his struggles back to the key moments in the loss to Nadal. I have no idea what’s to come for him in 2023. But I can say that during the stretch of the final when Medvedev was routing Nadal, I was ready to project enormous things for his career. He was fresh off winning the U.S. Open. He matched up well with Djokovic. He had survived an epic performance from Felix Auger-Aliassime in the Australian Open, winning from two sets and two match points down. He could deal with Tsitsipas and Rublev on a hard court easily. Medvedev still has a lot of things going for him heading into 2023. But that window when it seemed like he could be an all-conquering force on hard court has closed.

I think this match will mostly be remembered for what it did for Nadal, though. It put him above both Federer and Djokovic in major titles for the first time, a position he still holds at the end of the season. It erased his Australian Open demons. Despite what came after in 2022 — including his 14Roland-Garros — this was the crown jewel of his season, and though he’d never say it, I imagine that everything that he won after the Australian Open this year felt almost secondary for Nadal. He was never supposed to win this Australian Open, right up until the moment that he did. Nadal is adamant about living in the present. When he goes to Melbourne in 2023, he’ll be thinking about defending his title (though his odds of doing that aren’t all that much better than his chances of winning the title were this year). But it’s hard to imagine he won’t allow himself a smile at the memory of 2022.

Thoughts on Tennis Rankings

By Nick Carter

The top of the ATP rankings. Screenshot: ESPN

Tennis rankings came up in conversation after a bizarre all-caps tweet from Nick Kyrgios. 

The Australian was sharing a Tennis Channel graphic that suggested that according to the Universal Tennis Ranking (UTR) system, he would be ranked 2nd in the world behind Novak Djokovic, as opposed to 22nd

This of course caused some debate over what kind of qualities rankings should reflect. UTR uses the below method, explained by Josh Vernon of Universal Tennis:

“For each match, the algorithm calculates a match rating and a match weight for each player. A player’s UTR Rating is the weighted average of up to 30 of their most recent match ratings. Only matches within the last 12 months count toward a player’s UTR.”

So, it’s understandable why this would benefit Kyrgios, whose most recent results were from the mid-summer period where he had some strong runs on grass and U.S. hard courts. The UTR system benefits him because it doesn’t require players to compete through the year (or at least half of it) like the ATP rankings. 

For comparison, the ATP ranks players based on their best 19 performances across a 12-month period. Performance is not decided on a match-by-match basis, but by assigning points to tournaments based on stage reached (so the further you get, the more you score, on an increasing rate with each win), with some having more weight based on status (e.g. you gain more points from a major based on any other event). 

I would be remiss at this point not to mention ELO as a ranking system, which is favoured by Jeff Sackman who runs Tennis Abstract. The full breakdown is here but the simple explanation is that it is not about which matches a player wins in terms of stage of a tournament, rather it is based on the quality of opponent. So, a result’s weight is based on whether the victor has beaten an opponent with a higher, equal or lower rating. Sackman’s rankings also take into account a 12-month period. Most systems use this timeframe, which makes sense as a 12 month period encapsulates an entire season and its many diverse conditions, making it a good indicator of “form.”

Let’s look at the four qualities Kyrgios has highlighted. ‘Consistency’ is an underrated trait in tennis. The mark of a top player is not just that they can win events and beat the best in the world. All professional tennis players have the capability of doing this at least once in their career, or at least those who crack the top 100 at one point. Their ‘skill’ level is going to be high and the margins between the top players are very small. The fact you can beat most players, most days, is just as much a sign of being one of the most elite players as anything else. Jessica Pegula on the WTA Tour is the perfect example of this, regularly featuring in at least the quarter-finals in most tournaments that she played in and half the time only losing to the eventual champion if she didn’t win herself. This is what got her #3 singles ranking on the WTA (which is based on a similar premise to the ATP, but takes the best 16 results rather than best 19). A player can have the capability of charging through the draw and being in contention based on past results (like Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov or Dominic Thiem on the ATP or Naomi Osaka, Garbine Muguruza or Eugenie Bouchard on the WTA) but it’s more impressive when you are doing this on a regular basis (like Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Taylor Fritz, Pegula, Daria Kasatkina and Iga Swiatek). 

The top of the WTA rankings. Screenshot: ESPN

‘How much you play’ is very much linked to the above. Now of course favouring this in a ranking does hurt players who are physically injured or need to take time out for their mental health, parental leave, or other reasons. The Protected Ranking system mitigates some of the disadvantages, but given how most players come back to the tour not quite the same, at least initially, they should have to prove themselves again. Even if someone plays week in week out, and has a great last few weeks on tour, they have to show that they can still maintain that kind of performance whenever they step on court. However, this goes back to the same debate. Do you favour rewarding peak results or consistent results?

Let’s take a step back here and ask another question: what are rankings for? Why does tennis use them? First, they’re useful for structuring draws, especially to set up the most interesting final possible. This is not just because of the potential that it would be the best two players on paper, but also means that for events with bigger entry lists, the leading competitors are usually better spread throughout (though not always). This leads to the second reason, which is foundational to the first: It helps everyone make sense of the sport. ‘Everyone’ includes players to help them understand where they are in their development, but it is mainly for any off-court observers, especially fans and the media. We want to understand if one player is significantly ‘better’ than the other, which should inform us if their upcoming match will be interesting and for what reasons. Without a formalised computer system, we’d be using one based on reputation based on previous results, even if it was just the previous year’s results from the same event. Rankings set the context of the stories that unfold in matches and across the tournament, looking at who the favourites and underdogs are. People don’t usually like not knowing things and want to have some comfort in understanding something about what we’re going to see, so rankings give us something to hang on to.

So let’s go back to the earlier question: Should a ranking system be based more on peak results (ELO and UTR) or consistent results (ATP and WTA)?  

People who maybe are less familiar with the tour often believe things are based on peak results over a career, so it’s probably simplest to understand. And it’s odd that given we know the world-class tennis they can produce, that Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are not always number one and two and swapping the top spot between them. But then would it have been fair to rank Serena Williams number one in every tournament she played in 2022 given how rusty she was? That’s why there’s a 12-month window so that more recent results can influence things and help it make more sense to those who follow the sport a little more closely. After all, that’s how we got that magnificent Australian Open final where somehow Rafael Nadal won despite being an underdog against a gifted but nowhere near as decorated opponent in Daniil Medvedev.

This is where my categorisation of the different systems is shown up to be a little too simplistic. The Tour ranking is weighted in favour of peak results in terms of the value of tournaments won (e.g. winning a major in a season more or less guarantees someone a top 10 spot in the rankings). Likewise, ELO does reward consistency–a ranking goes down following a loss, how much depending on the ranking of the opponent. So, it still rewards those who go deep in tournaments regularly.

Often (though by no means always), the winner of a major has to have beaten a highly motivated elite player on the way. The next question is whether you define ‘peak’ results on who you beat or what events you win? Often it ends up being more or less the same thing. For example, in 2022 Carlos Alcaraz’s biggest point yields were the US Open title, followed by his Madrid and Miami trophies. However, if ELO was used it would be his Madrid title that was his biggest yield, then his wins at Miami and the US Open. The difference might not be major, but certainly emphasises different things. 

Regardless, it makes sense to think that someone with higher potential should be favoured, but then there’s the question of how likely are they to meet that standard at an event. If their 12-month form is patchier, where let’s say they’ve won a Masters 1000 but struggled to get past the round of 16 most other events they’ve entered, it’s hard to gauge if they’re a top 4 or top 16 contender at a major. For example, if Nick Kyrgios is 2nd best according to UTR but hasn’t won a tennis match he’s played for 3 months building up to the Australian Open (hypothetically of course), how much of a contender do observers perceive him as? This is where we see the value of consistency as a trait to be rewarded.

The rankings for the most part strike a decent balance as they are. With one exception: ‘form’. In this case, ‘form’ means more recent results (for example the previous month or 6 weeks). Often, these influence perceptions of a player about to enter, say, a major. There is some benefit to players as they get a boost from a strong upturn in ‘form’ but how much depends on the level of the tournament.

A suggestion would be to weight 12-month rankings more heavily in more recent results. Essentially in a 12-month ranking, results from over 3 months would reduce in worth by 25%, 50% for over 6 months and 75% for over 12. So, this would mean players like Beatriz Haddad Maia at Wimbledon or Caroline Garcia ahead of the US Open would seem a lot less like dark horses and more like genuine contenders, as their strong recent results would be weighted more heavily. Likewise, majors that just ended would have more of an influence. In this version, Rafael Nadal would become world number one after Roland Garros in 2022. In fact, the rankings at the end of the season would be led by Alcaraz (U.S. Open champion), closely followed by Djokovic (World Tour Finals champion). The benefit is that consistency is still rewarded with this system because results through the year will create a stronger ranking, whilst a peak would have strong benefits for the short term but lose its value as the year progresses. 

The main purpose of this piece was to get everyone thinking, and asking themselves what they would prefer to prioritise in a ranking system: consistency or peak performance, and whether you reward big matches or trophies more. Let us know which system you prefer, why, and what’s important to you. It’s not about pushing for a particular system, although I will say the method the tours use works well from my perspective.

Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion in 2022: WTA

By Jack Edward

Hello again guys! 

I’m back with some more entertaining stats on the players that lost most frequently to the eventual champion of a tournament this season. We focused on the men last time; this time we’re delving into the WTA. There are some interesting storylines here — strap in!

Joint-Third: Six Losses

In 2022, 141 WTA players lost to a tournament’s eventual champ.

Of those 141, three players lost to a tournament’s eventual champ six times, the third-most of anyone on tour.

The first isn’t much of a surprise. Belinda Bencic was low-key scary at times this year so her inclusion here is understandable.

  1. Badosa in Sydney (QF)
  2. Kontaveit in St. Petersburg (QF)
  3. Jabeur in Madrid (3R)
  4. Jabeur in Berlin (F)
  5. Martic in Lausanne (QF)
  6. Krejčíková in Tallinn (SF)

A Wimbledon champion isn’t much of a surprise either – still Elena Rybakina had five tough heartbreakers to stomach after winning the biggest title of her career, three of them coming in first or second rounds.

  1. Barty in Adelaide (F)
  2. Kasatkina in San Jose (1R)
  3. Siniakova in Portoroz (F)
  4. Samsonova in Tokyo (1R)
  5. Krejčíková in Ostrava (SF)
  6. Pegula in Guadalajara (2R)

Someone that did surprise me however? In a testament to her future and her current quality, Qinwen Zheng makes the list, twice falling to the eventual tournament champion in Grand Slams!

  1. Halep in Melbourne (SF)
  2. Fernandez in Monterrey (QF)
  3. Świątek at Roland-Garros (4R)
  4. Rybakina at Wimbledon (3R)
  5. Samsonova in Tokyo (F)
  6. Świątek in San Diego (2R)

Joint-Second: Seven Losses

Three players went one further with seven losses to TEC’s throughout the year.

Aryna Sabalenka was repeatedly foiled by this year’s cream of the crop. Though Sabalenka’s season was rocky, this list shows she was often in the running or thereabout. (Note those four losses to Swiatek!)

  1. Świątek in Doha (QF)
  2. Świątek in Stuttgart (F)
  3. Świątek in Rome (SF)
  4. Alexandrova in s’Hertogenbosch (F)
  5. Kasatkina in San Jose (QF)
  6. Garcia in Cincinnati (SF)
  7. Świątek at the US Open (SF)

   7.5 Garcia at the World Tour Finals (F) *Round-robin events not included*

Coco Gauff had a similar experience to Sabalenka, losing to Świątek three times when the Pole won the tournament. A couple of these losses actually came relatively early in tournament draws, perhaps shedding a new light on the American’s season.

  1. Barty in Adelaide (2R)
  2. Keys in Adelaide 2 (2R)
  3. Świątek in Miami (4R)
  4. Świątek at Roland-Garros (F)
  5. Jabeur in Berlin (SF)
  6. Halep in Toronto (QF)
  7. Świątek in San Diego (QF)

To nobody’s surprise, Maria Sakkari rounds out the list. Being a four-time runner-up this year was always going to put her ahead of most. A small silver-lining for Sakkari fans? A sneaky loss to Garcia in the second-round of Cincinnati makes her poor North American swing a little easier to swallow.

  1. Kontaveit in St. Petersburg (F)
  2. Swiatek in Doha (SF)
  3. Swiatek in Indian Wells (F)
  4. Haddad Maia in Nottingham (QF)
  5. Garcia in Cincinnati (2R)
  6. Sherif in Parma (F)
  7. Pegula in Guadalajara (F)

  (7.5 Garcia at the World Tour Finals (SF))

Stand-Alone First: Eight Losses

If you’ve been following the tour closely, you might have a good idea of who comes at top of our list.

Jessica Pegula racked up eight losses this year to a TEC! Not overly surprising. The nature of some of the losses however…

  1. Barty at the Australian Open (QF)
  2. Świątek in Miami (SF)
  3. Jabeur in Madrid (F)
  4. Świątek at Roland-Garros (QF)
  5. Halep in Toronto (SF)
  6. Garcia in Cincinnati (QF)
  7. Świątek at the US Open (QF)
  8. Świątek in San Diego (SF)
Pegula with the runner-up plate in Madrid. Screenshot: WTA

Pegula lost to the eventual champ at the Australian Open, the French Open and the US Open. Each of these losses came in the quarterfinals. There’s a 1 in 7 chance Pegula is drawn against the tournament favourite at this stage of each of these Slams (FYI, she would have played Rybakina in the fourth-round of Wimbledon if she’d won her third-round match). 

The chances of drawing the tournament favourite in the quarters three times in three Slams? 

1 in 343.

To boot, Pegula then had to deal with brutal losses in four WTA 1000s. There were four Slams and eight WTA 1000s this season. Pegula won Guadalajara, so for the other 11 events? Pegula was beaten by the eventual champion in 7 out of 11 of them. Just look at the list: all late rounds, all big events, all very tough opponents.

As big an OOF as there is.

Hope you enjoyed the rundown. Let me know how aggrieved you are on Twitter (@ontheline_jack)!

Why the Hopman Cup Will Fail in 2023

By James Steel

Not to worry: the website is coming soon. Screenshot: hopmancup.com

Early in December the ITF announced the comeback of the Hopman Cup, four years after it was put into hibernation by the tennis body. The revamped competition will be taking place in a new location, time of year and surface. From the hard courts of Perth, Australia in January, the Hopman Cup will now take place on the clay in Nice, France in July. 

The format will remain somewhat the same with six national teams competing over five days. Each team will have one man and one woman, who will play one singles match each and a mixed doubles decider if required. This differs somewhat from the United Cup where there will be 24 national teams competing and 5 matches per tie. It also differs from the gender-specific Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup. 

I question how successful the Hopman Cup can be. My first concern is the time of year to play on the clay. Taking a holistic view of the tennis calendar, we can see that the main clay court season runs from the beginning of February with events such as Estoril for the men and Charlestown for the women all the way through until the Roland-Garros, ending in early June. 

Between Roland-Garros and the Hopman Cup, though, you have the grass court season. Grass is wholly different from clay in height of bounce, speed and movement, and it often takes players a few matches to adjust to playing on the lawns. So it’s quite possible that the quick clay-grass-clay turnaround would lead to error-laden matches at the Hopman Cup, leading to big names going out early or poor quality overall. Which top ranked players would want to put themselves through that? 

Also, most players that play ATP and WTA 250/500 tournaments on clay this time of year tend to either be clay court specialists who predict either an early round exit at Wimbledon or not participating in the tournament altogether. Players looking to boost their rankings would likely look to these tournaments, like Hamburg, Gstaad, or Palermo, before the Hopman Cup. 

The Hopman Cup may also struggle to land the biggest names. At this point in the season, they’ll have just finished playing two grand slam events in two months. With the grind of summer hard courts ahead, they may well be looking for R&R rather than a team tournament played on a surface very different from the hard courts in Flushing Meadows. Given that the Hopman Cup has no ranking points attached, huge financial incentives will be needed to bring the biggest names to the Nice clay. In 2024, the tournament is well-positioned to prepare players for the August Olympics held at Roland Garros in Paris, but the Hopman Cup won’t have that help every year.

Lastly, I have to hit on the congestion of team-based events in the calendar. With the United Cup at the beginning of the season (with which the Hopman Cup shares some qualities), the Davis and BJK Cup at the end and the quantity of events throughout the year, the Hopman Cup will have several competitors for attention. Which team event is the one to watch? The Hopman Cup will just be drowned out and it will be difficult to get sufficient support behind the event to make it seriously prestigious. 

My fear is that the Hopman Cup decision was made on nostalgia for a tournament that had some big moments in the past. The tournament is going to be at the wrong time and on the wrong surface. Perhaps the Hopman Cup could live on in its name, replacing “United Cup,” but the current situation makes it hard to project a rosy future for the newly revived tournament.

50 Pivotal Moments from the WTA Season

Iga Świątek lifts the Roland-Garros trophy after a dominant run to the final. Photo: Owen Lewis

By Juan Ignacio Astaburuaga

In an attempt to summarize what the WTA was in this crazy year, I picked fifty of the most relevant episodes lived this season. This is the chronological story of the WTA in 2022, with Iga Świątek, Ons Jabeur, Serena Williams, and Simona Halep, among others, as the main characters.

1. In Adelaide, Sofia Kenin scored a second-round win over Ajla Tomljanović, even saving match points in the second set. The 2020 Australian Open champion would not get a single victory in more than seven months thereafter, entering a nine-match losing streak.

2. Emma Raducanu lost 6-0 6-1 to Elena Rybakina in Sydney, and to Danka Kovinić in Melbourne. Not being used to the intensity of the tour, and her recurrent physical problems, both evidenced in these losses, would be her main obstacles in this transitional year of getting accustomed to the circuit. 

3. Paula Badosa won the third title of her career in Sydney, defeating Krejčíková in the final. What seemed to be the start of a year of consolidating her high ranking, ended up being, disappointingly, her only notable result of 2022.

4. As the defending champion, Naomi Osaka wasted two match points and lost in the third round of the Australian Open to Amanda Anisimova in a third set tiebreak. Having barely played since Roland-Garros in 2021, Osaka left the top 80 for the first time since 2016.

5. Iga Świątek made back-to-back comebacks against Sorana Cîrstea and Kaia Kanepi to get her first major semifinal on hard court. These were vital wins for her mammoth winning streak later in the year, as they took her skills, tactics, mentality, and confidence to another level on hard courts.

6. Ashleigh Barty beat Collins 6-2 7-62 in the Australian Open final, becoming the first Australian to win the title in 44 years, and completing the career surface slam. Not even Barty at the time knew it would end up being the last match she would ever play.

7. In an interview moderated by members of the Chinese Olympic Committee, Peng Shuai said people misunderstood her words and that she never accused someone of sexual assault, and makes her retirement from tennis official. She has not appeared in the public eye since.

8. Anett Kontaveit won in Saint Petersburg for the sixth title of her career, and fifth in six months. Her indoor winning streak had grown to twenty matches and four titles, but this would end up being the only title of her season.

9. Jeļena Ostapenko beat four major champions and Veronika Kudermetova in the final to take the title in Dubai. Also, having defeated her in a second-round third-set tiebreak, Ostapenko became the only player in a five-month span to hand Świątek a loss.

10. Świątek started her record-breaking thirty-seven-match winning streak and went on to win the 1000 event in Doha, beating Kontaveit in the final. It was her first big title on hard courts, and first of the six consecutive ones she would claim.

11. On February 24th, Russia starts the invasion of Ukraine. Świątek used her Doha winning speech to speak up in support of Ukraine. The following week, Elina Svitolina refused to face Anastasia Potapova in Monterrey if she played under the Russian flag.

12. After the start of the war, Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska fled her country with her younger sister, going to France, and got a wildcard for the Lyon event. In an emotional run, she lost in the final to Zhang, having saved match points in the first round.

13. Leylah Fernandez successfully defended her Monterrey title in an epic final against Camila Osorio. In some last games full of drama, with an extended interruption on match point, she saved five championship points to win in a third set tiebreak.

14. Having had to win her first three matches from a set down, Świątek cruises afterwards, and beats Madison Keys, Simona Halep, and Maria Sákkari in Indian Wells for her second title in a row. She goes up to world number two, where she would stay for a mere five days.

15. After the Australian Billie Jean King Cup tie gets canceled because of Russia’s suspension, Barty shockingly announced her retirement and asked to be removed from the number one ranking. Badosa and Świątek were her only possible successors.

16. Świątek won her first match in Miami and became the 28th WTA player to reach number one, and the first one from Poland. Just four weeks earlier, she had been ranked eighth. Her jump from fourth to first happened in six days.

17. Osaka picked up her best result of the season, reaching the final in Miami. The signals were unequivocally positive, and she showed desire to get back to her best. Still, things did not improve ― she only won two completed matches in the rest of 2022.

18. Świątek extended her winning streak to 17 matches, taking the title in Miami by beating Osaka 6-4, 6-0 in the final. She became the first player to win the first three WTA 1000 events of the year, and the youngest ever to win the Sunshine Double.

19. Ons Jabeur won her second career title in Madrid, and her first above 250-level, beating Pegula in the final. She became the second African woman to win a WTA 1000 title, and first since 1998. Jabeur maintained her great form to reach the Rome final.

20. After winning Stuttgart, Świątek kept extending her streak, successfully defending her title in Rome. She joined Nadal, Serena, Federer, Djoković, Azarenka, Murray, and Henin as the only players to win twenty-five matches in a row this century.

21. The AELTC and LTA had announced that Russian and Belarussian players would be banned from entering their events due to the war in Ukraine. Tennis governing bodies decided to strip Wimbledon of ranking points as a result, turning the tournament into a glorified exhibition.

22. In one of the best matches of the year, Angelique Kerber beat Kaja Juvan in the Strasbourg final. Having not played since Wimbledon, Kerber announced her pregnancy in August, just as Elina Svitolina had done three months before.

23. Jabeur had made three finals and won a big title during the clay season. As a clear title contender, and in one of the upsets of the year, the Tunisian was beaten by Magda Linette in the first round of Roland-Garros, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

24. In other big French Open first round matches, Barbora Krejčíková lost in her debut to Diane Parry, as only two other defending champions had done in history. She had not played a match in three months, but the match stung regardless, as the 2021 champion said during her press conference.

25. Świątek got the cherry on top of her epic winning streak, claiming the title in Paris. It was her second Grand Slam. In beating Gauff in the final, she tied Venus Williams’ streak of thirty-five straight wins, the longest streak on the WTA since 2000. She had won three titles in three clay events played.

26. Beatriz Haddad Maia had an incredible run during the grass season, with twelve wins in a row, titles in Nottingham and Birmingham, and a semifinal in Eastbourne. She became just the sixth woman to win two grass titles in a season since 1987.

27. After almost a year off the courts, Serena Williams makes her comeback to tennis. She played Eastbourne in doubles with Jabeur, where they won two matches, and Wimbledon, where in an epic first round battle, Serena lost to Harmony Tan in a third-set tiebreak.

28. The streak finally comes to an end. In the third round of Wimbledon, Alizé Cornet beat Świątek after thirty-seven consecutive wins and six titles in a row. Świątek’s run was the longest match winning streak of the century on the WTA, and joint-longest since 1990.

29. An incredible story from Tatjana Maria in 2022. Having just made her comeback to tennis at 33 years of age after giving birth to her two kids, she won her first title in four years in Bogota, and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon!

30. Unfairly questioned by some members of the media because of her country of birth, Elena Rybakina had one of the best Grand Slam event runs in recent years and took the title in Wimbledon. She is the first Kazakhstani ever to win a major. And she earned… no points for it.

31. Bernarda Pera had the best weeks of her life, winning back-to-back titles in Budapest (coming from qualies) and Hamburg. She beat the world number two along the way, and made the final at a 125. During the 16-match winning streak, she only lost one set!

32. Venus Williams finally made her comeback to tennis. In Washington, she lost a really close match to Rebecca Marino, having won the first set. She would also lose in her debuts in Toronto and at the US Open, to Jill Teichmann and Alison van Uytvanck.

33. Simona Halep won Toronto, the 24th title of her career, beating Beatriz Haddad Maia in the final, returning to the top 10 after thirteen months. Having also recently reached the Wimbledon semifinals, she was slowly getting back into top form and appeared to be well-positioned for the U.S. Open…

34. Serena announced her “retirement”, and that the US Open would be her last tournament. In an emotional farewell, she got one win in Canada over Nuria Párrizas Díaz before losing to Bencic shortly thereafter and to Raducanu in Cincinnati.

35. After some years of inconsistency, Caroline Garcia climbed back to her top level. She had an incredible run with titles in Bad Homburg and Warsaw and adds another one in Cincinnati, from qualifying. Her streak didn’t stop until the U.S. Open semifinals.

36. The upset of the year. Daria Snigur, a 20-year-old Ukrainian qualifier, beat Halep in the first round of the U.S. Open, despite losing a set 6-0. In an emotional on-court interview, Snigur dedicates the win to her country at war.

37. At the U.S. Open, Cornet broke the record for most consecutive Grand Slam appearances. She was set to face Raducanu, who became the third-ever defending champion to lose in the first round, falling out of the top 80.

38. Four-time major champion Osaka faced Danielle Collins in the first round of the U.S. Open. In a high-quality match, Collins prevailed in two sets over the out-of-form Osaka, who would end a season without a Grand Slam title for the first time since 2017.

39. Serena’s final career win became one of her most memorable ones ever. In her retirement tournament, and with an insane atmosphere, she beat world number two Kontaveit in the second round. The third set… wow!

40. The legendary Serena Williams said goodbye. Visibly exhausted after two incredibly tight sets, she could not do much in the third set against Ajla Tomljanović, losing it 6-1. The last game, though, was a fittingly epic end for her glittering career. 

41. Muguruza faced Petra Kvitová in an epic third round match at the U.S. Open. The Spaniard, who had won back-to-back matches for the first time in six months, lost in a third-set tiebreak to the Czech, who was carrying momentum from making the Cincinnati final.

42. Krejčíková and Kateřina Siniaková won the U.S. Open, coming back from a set and a break down in the final, and became the first ever doubles team to complete the Career Super Slam: all four majors, Olympic gold, and the Tour Finals.

43. Świątek came to the U.S. Open after two irregular months. Not playing at her best, but adapting to the circumstances, she won her third major and her first on hard court, becoming the first woman to win multiple majors in a single season since Kerber in 2016.

44. A teenage breakthrough in Chennai: Linda Fruhvirtová came back from a set down three times, and from 1-4 down in the third set of the final. At just seventeen years of age, she won her first title and made her debut inside the top 100. 

45. Liudmila Samsonova won titles in Washington, Cleveland, and Tokyo, compiling a record of 18-1 in four tournaments. The first two, won back-to-back, were part of her thirteen-match winning streak, which only stopped at the U.S. Open fourth round. 

46. After a shaky year in singles due to injuries, Krejčíková returned to top form, winning back-to-back titles in Tallinn and Ostrava, ending Kontaveit’s indoor hard streak, and beating Świątek in an incredible match, handing the Pole her first final loss in her last ten title matches. 

47. Immediately after the Ostrava final, Świątek won the eighth and last title of her season in San Diego, beating Vekić in the final, with an incredible third set in which she lost just five points. She would then reach the semifinals at the year-end championships. 

48. On October 21st, two-time Grand Slam champion and former world number one Halep announced that she has been provisionally suspended due to a positive doping test for Roxadustat. She had not played since the U.S. Open.

49. Jessica Pegula finally got her reward. Being one of the most consistent players on tour, she still had not won a title since mid-2019. In Guadalajara, a 1000-level event, Pegula beat Sákkari in the final to become a top-three ranked player.

50. Caroline Garcia won the biggest title of her career to finish her best ever season. By winning the WTA Finals, beating Sabalenka in the final, she finished the year ranked fourth, when not even five months earlier, she was outside the top seventy.

Special Mentions

  • Amanda Anisimova won her second career title, and first in three years, in Melbourne
  • Garbiñe Muguruza lost to Riske from 6-0, 3-0 up in Indian Wells, the start of her downfall
  • Simona Halep hired Patrick Mouratoglou as her new coach
  • Belinda Bencic won Charleston, to finally get one title on each surface
  • Aryna Sabalenka ended Kontaveit’s twenty-two indoor-match winning streak in Stuttgart
  • Iga Świątek won Stuttgart, her fourth consecutive tournament, in her debut as number one
  • Martina Trevisan won Rabat and ten matches in a row until the Roland-Garros semifinals
  • Petra Kvitová won the title in Eastbourne, her first one since March 2021
  • Caroline Garcia beat Świątek in Poland, ending her eighteen-match winning streak on clay
  • Cori Gauff, at just eighteen years of age, became number one in doubles
  • Emma Raducanu beat Serena and Azarenka in back-to-back matches in Cincinnati
  • Mayar Sherif won her first WTA title in Parma, with a win over Sákkari in the final
  • Switzerland won the Billie Jean King Cup for the first time in history


Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion in 2022: ATP

By Jack Edward

Photo: Australian Open

Hello Popcorn folk! I’m back at the end of the year with another edition of “Losing to a Tournament’s Eventual Champion”. 

No idea what a loss to a tournament’s eventual champion is? Take the Paris Masters whilst it’s fresh in the mind. Stan Wawrinka loses to Holger Rune in the first-round (after holding three match points). Holger Rune goes on to win the tournament. Ergo Wawrinka lost to that tournament’s eventual champion.

I’m going to list the players on the ATP Tour that sustained the most losses to a tournament’s eventual champion (round-robins don’t count!).

Got it?

Maybe your favourite is in here…

Joint-Third: Five Losses

In 2022, 127 players lost to a tournament’s eventual champion.

Of those 127, six players lost to a tournament’s eventual champ five times, the third-most of anyone on tour.

There are some higher-ranked players in here that won’t be much of a surprise…

Despite sitting out half the season, there’s Alexander Zverev…

  1. Bublik in Montpellier (F)
  2. Tsitsipas in Monte Carlo (SF)
  3. Rune in Munich (2R)
  4. Alcaraz in Madrid (F)
  5. Nadal at the French Open (SF)

A few of these losses will hurt Daniil Medvedev fans…

  1. Nadal at the Australian Open (F)
  2. Nadal in Acapulco (SF)
  3. Van Rijthoven in ’s-Hertogenbosch (F)
  4. Hurkacz in Halle (F)
  5. Djokovic in Astana (SF)

Hubi Hurkacz reminds us of the strength of his season…

1. Rublev in Dubai (SF)

2. Alcaraz in Miami (SF)

3. Carreño Busta in Montreal (F)

4. Sonego in Metz (SF)

5. Rune in Paris (2R)

… and Matteo Berrettini does well to make the list given his injury woes.

1. Nadal at the Australian Open (SF)

2. Alcaraz in Rio (QF)

3. Ruud in Gstaad (F)

4. Carreño Busta in Montreal (1R)

5. Musetti in Napoli (F)

Let’s spice things up – I have two dark horses for you!

Big Marin Čilić makes the list with some pretty difficult losses to stomach…

1. Kokkinakis in Adelaide (SF)

2. Alcaraz in Miami (2R)

3. Baez in Estoril (2R)

4. Alcaraz at the US Open (4R)

5. Djokovic in Tel Aviv (F)

… and Finnish up-and-comer Emil Ruusuvuori shows promise going into 2023!

1. Nadal in Melbourne Summer Set (SF)

2. Sousa in Pune (F)

3. Rune in Munich (QF)

4. Musetti in Hamburg (2R)

5. Mannarino in Winston-Salem (2R)

Joint-Second: Six Losses

Four players went one further with six losses to TEC’s throughout the year.

The first won’t shock anybody. Casper Ruud had a year full of positives but couldn’t go one further at many of the tour’s biggest events.

1. Alcaraz in Miami (F)

2. Djokovic in Rome (SF)

3. Nadal at the French Open (F)

4. F. Cerundolo in Bastad (2R)

5. Alcaraz at the US Open (F)

6. Nishioka in Seoul (QF)

6.5. Djokovic at the ATP Finals (F) *remember though, round-robin events are excluded*

Then we have a couple more dark horses to throw into the mix…

Dan Evans went one more loss to a TEC than last year, showing it takes QUALITY to defeat him.

1. Karatsev in Sydney (SF)

2. Rublev in Dubai (1R)

3. Berrettini at Queen’s Club (1R)

4. Carreño Busta in Montreal (SF)

5. Nishioka in Seoul (1R)

6. Auger-Aliassime in Antwerp (QF)

Tommy Paul had a similar year to Evo, arguably posting some better results, as his stock rose throughout the season.

1. Monfils in Adelaide (QF)

2. Norrie in Delray Beach (SF)

3. Nadal in Acapulco (QF)

4. Berrettini at Queen’s Club (QF)

5. Kyrgios in Washington (2R)

6. Rublev in Gijon (QF)

Now for the darkest of dark horses… Jaume Munar, the world #57, makes the list with some very unfortunate draws!

1. Alcaraz in Rio (1R)

2. Martinez in Santiago (2R)

3. Fritz in Indian Wells (2R)

4. Alcaraz in Barcelona (3R)

5. Ruud in Gstaad (QF)

6. Sinner in Umag (2R)

Joint-First: Seven Losses

Finally, the cream of the loser’s crop. Four of the 127 players to lose to a TEC did so on seven separate occasions!

Three of the four players could be considered fairly obvious…

We’ll start with Stefanos Tsitsipas of course. Over the course of this year and the last, he has accrued the most losses to eventual tournament champions with a grand total of 13.

1. Auger-Aliassime in Rotterdam (F)

2. Alcaraz in Miami (3R)

3. Alcaraz in Barcelona (QF)

4. Djokovic in Rome (F)

5. Ćorić in Cincinnati (F)

6. Djokovic in Astana (F)

7. Rune in Stockholm (F)

Felix Auger-Aliassime showed the first four titles of his career were no accident as it often took the best player of the week to knock him out of the tournament.

1. Rublev in Marseilles (F)

2. Djokovic in Rome (QF)

3. Nadal at the French Open (4R)

4. Van Rijthoven in ’s-Hertogenbosch (SF)

5. Hurkacz in Halle (QF)

6. Ćorić in Cincinnati (QF)

7. Rune in Paris (SF)

Does Cam Norrie’s inclusion surprise you? Not me — Norrie made four finals last year and has felt like a valid member of the top-15 this year too with plenty of honourable losses. 

1. Auger-Aliassime in Rotterdam (QF)

2. Nadal in Acapulco (F)

3. Alcaraz in Madrid (3R)

4. Djokovic at Wimbledon (SF)

5. Medvedev in Los Cabos (F)

6. Ćorić in Cincinnati (SF)

7. Rune in Stockholm (QF)

Drum Roll Please…

And finally… arguably the most hard-done-by player of the lot…

Miomir Kecmanović! Poor Kekkers couldn’t catch a break with draws this year. His best year to-date was arguably stifled by some peak performances. 2023 will hopefully bring him better luck!

1. Karatsev in Sydney (2R)

2. Fritz in Indian Wells (QF)

3. Alcaraz in Miami (QF)

4. Djokovic at Wimbledon (3R)

5. Medvedev in Los Cabos (SF)

6. Musetti in Napoli (SF)

7. Auger-Aliassime in Basel (2R)

Did your favourite player lose a ton of matches this year? Is that player vindicated with an inclusion on this list?

Hopefully you enjoyed this alternative perspective on the season. I’ll catch you next time with a feature on the WTA!

Highlights of the 2022 Tennis Season

By Nick Carter

What better way to commemorate the end of the 2022 tennis season than to look back on the many, many highlights the year has given us? There have been plenty of stories that have warmed a lot of people’s hearts. This piece is for those who want to think back fondly, with a cup of tea and maybe YouTube with some highlights up. The focus here is mostly on title wins or specific matches in majors, keeping things on the court – let’s dive in.

9th January – Simona Halep wins the title at one of the “Melbourne Summer Set” events held in the first week of the year. It was a welcome result for the Romanian as she came back from injury in the middle part of 2021. The former world number one and two-time major champion is always good to have in the mix, and the result kickstarted a year that saw her return to the top ten, reach a major semi-final at Wimbledon and win another 1000 title in Canada. Obviously, the year did not end well for her when she was suspended for alleged doping, in what is an ongoing situation.

15th January – The WTA 500 in Sydney produced an epic match in the semi-finals between Barbora Krejčíková and Anett Kontaveit that ended with an incredible tie-break. In the end, Krejčíková won 0-6, 6-4, 7-6 (14-12), showing doubters that when the top ten clash in the women’s game, they can put on a great show. Krejčíková then went on to play another memorable match in the final against Paula Badosa, this time losing narrowly, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4).

16th January – Having battled with injury for much of his career, Thanasi Kokkinakis won his first ATP Title in Adelaide. The then-25-year-old had returned in 2021 after two years out, and was finally able to showcase the talent he’d been showing since he was a teenager. Seen as one of the tour’s nice guys, most were pleased he finally was able to make this breakthrough.

21st January – Amanda Anisimova beat Naomi Osaka 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10-5) in an epic night match at the Australian Open, saving match points and blasting winners as heavy as boulders en route to the victory. Anisimova had won the other WTA “Summer Set” event, which in itself was a great moment, but the win over the defending champion in an entertaining contest showed she was ready for the big time again. The American had been dealing with the loss of her father in 2020, having wowed the tennis world as a teenager at the 2019 Roland-Garros Championships, so this win carried a lot of emotions. Anisimova later on managed to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals, impressively beating Coco Gauff on the way. 

25th & 26th January – The Australian Open quarterfinals ended up producing a lot of drama, as three of the four men’s matches went the full five sets. It started with Rafael Nadal holding off a spirited performance by Denis Shapovalov. Gael Monfils continued to entertain as the popular Frenchman just fell short of a comeback against Matteo Berrettini. The next day, Stefanos Tsitsipas put in one of the performances of his career to beat Jannik Sinner. The grand finale was Daniil Medvedev saving two match points to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime in a brutally close match that still stands as one of the best of 2022. Whilst the women’s quarter-finals were more straightforward, Madison Keys turned heads by earning herself a place in another major semi-final against Barbora Krejčíková. Then, Iga Świątek’s scrappy win against Kaia Kanepi impressed those watching her development, in a result that ended up having a significant impact on the rest of the year, giving the now-world-number-one the confidence to win with her B or C game.

29th January This was a special night for Australia, as their home players took titles in women’s singles and men’s doubles. The ‘Special Ks’ of Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis wowed the crowds on their way to the title, putting doubles back on the map for a moment. However, the moment that everyone will remember was Ash Barty finally winning her home major. It was an uncharacteristically exuberant celebration to cap an absolutely dominant run for the world number one, who did not drop a set the entire tournament and seemed unplayable at points. Her opponent in the final, Danielle Collins, did push her more than most but Ash was not to be denied. Australia had been waiting over 30 years for a women’s singles champion and Barty had disappointingly fallen short in previous years. Given how loved she is by fans, it was a welcome result. A few months later, this match took on more significance when Barty announced her shock retirement from tennis. As a result, this win was her final professional tennis match, meaning she managed to do what so few achieve and go out at the very top of the game. 

30th January – This match ended up being the most significant of the ATP season, as the Australian Open men’s final ended up giving us a classic story. Rafael Nadal somehow came back from two sets down to complete an extraordinary victory over Daniil Medvedev: 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. 35-year-old Nadal had come back from injury and had momentum from winning the ATP ‘Summer Set’ event, but despite his status he was expected to lose to a younger, fitter, more in-form and higher ranked opponent. There was almost a twist in the tale in the final set, but Nadal would not be denied after having worked his way back into the match with a persistence only he has. The result set up an extraordinary few months for the Spaniard, as well as giving him the lead in the storied ‘Grand Slam Race’ for the first time.

13th February – Felix Auger-Aliassime finally won a first career ATP Tour title in Rotterdam thanks to a convincing performance against Stefanos Tsitsipas. He’d had a great start to the season after captaining Canada to the ATP Cup title and pushing Medvedev in Australia. It was a frustrating record for Auger-Aliassime to have lost eight ATP finals, especially for someone clearly as talented as him, so it was great to see him break the duck and really put himself on the map of leading contenders at tournaments. Later in the year he would go on to hit even better form, winning consecutive titles at the end of the season in Florence, Antwerp and Basel. These results confirmed his status as a legitimate top player.

22nd February 14-year-old Czech Brenda Fruhvirtová put in a respectable performance against former US Open champion Sloane Stephens, losing 6-2, 6-2 after going up an early break. The young Fruhvirtová had gone on an ITF winning streak (and would have an even longer one later in the year) and actually made it through qualifying for the 250 event in Guadalajara. The result looked even better in retrospect after Stephens went on to win the title. Brenda’s older sister, 17-year-old Linda Fruhvirtová, would later impress by reaching the last 16 in Miami and winning a 250 title in Chennai. Both Czechs are clearly talented and could be stars of the future if they keep injury free, but the initial result from Brenda was what put them on the map.

28th February – Juan Martin del Potro played what is probably the final match of his career. The former US Open champion wanted to have an on-court swansong, despite having a knee injury that was causing him pain and even affecting his quality of life. He showed flashes of his old self against Federico Delbonis but his discomfort was obvious. The tennis world then took a moment to celebrate the career of a man who at his best could take it to the old ‘Big Four’ and, had he not been riddled with injuries, could have made it Five.

3rd April – Iga Świątek beats Naomi Osaka to win the Miami Open final, her third 1000-level title in a row. It was a highly anticipated match between the two talented young players, seen as the leading names of their generation. In the end, Świątek outplayed multiple-major champion Osaka, though there were competitive moments in the first set. The result was significant in the wider tennis picture, as Świątek would become world number one the following Monday. Whilst other players might have wilted after inheriting the top ranking after Barty’s retirement, the Pole proved herself worthy of it by dominating the event in Miami and establishing herself as the ultimate player to beat.

15th April – Another epic quarterfinal day, this time in Monte-Carlo, as all matches went to deciding sets. Alejandro Davidovich Fokina backed up his impressive run by coming back against Taylor Fritz. Grigor Dimitrov frustrated Hubert Hurkacz in one of his random epic performances. Alexander Zverev then edged Jannik Sinner in a deciding set tie-break, in a match that really could have gone either way. Finally, Stefanos Tsitsipas battled some insane momentum shifts, including a 0-4 deficit in the third set, to defeat Diego Schwartzman in a late-night thriller. 

1st May – Two young talents won ATP Tour titles on this day, with Sebastian Baez triumphing in Estoril whilst Holger Rune lifted the trophy in Munich. Rune would then use this to reach the Roland Garros Quarter-Finals, in what would be his first rich vein of form this season. His second would see him win two indoor titles, including beating Novak Djokovic in Paris and put himself on the map as being amongst the best of this new generation.

7th May Ons Jabeur wins the WTA 1000 title in Madrid, beating Jessica Pegula in a nervy final, a significant match for many reasons. The most obvious resonance came from the fact that Jabeur became the first Arab woman to win a title at this high a level. However, Ons’s style of play and easygoing personality make her a popular player in her own right on tour and many were pleased for her on a personal level too. Her talent had been obvious for some time and her variety was often praised, so it was good to see her overcome some of her mental hurdles in that final.

8th May – You’re probably wondering why it’s taken this long to mention Carlos Alcaraz. By this point in the year, the teenage sensation had narrowly lost a deciding tie-break to Matteo Berrettini in Australia, avenged this result on his way to the Rio Open title, pushed Nadal hard in Indian Wells, played an entertaining match against Miomir Kecmanović in Miami and later won his first Masters 1000 at that same event. This was before the European clay season got underway properly, but he backed this up by winning the Barcelona title, beating Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur in two epics on the way, and all this before he turned 19 during the Madrid Open. To cap it off, Alcaraz won his second Masters 1000 title, beating Zverev in the final, having beaten Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back on the way there (the latter being a fantastic contest). The result took Alcaraz up to a career high of number 6, firmly establishing him as a top ten player. Not only are these impressive results for someone so young, but his game style won so many people over, with his variety of dazzling shots either showcasing great power or great touch. This is where Alcaraz hype began to peak.

21st May Angelique Kerber beat Kaja Juvan 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 to win one of the matches of the year in the final of the WTA 250 in Strasbourg. The match got so much hype on Twitter; everyone flocked to see it by the end. It was Kerber’s last sporting high of the year, as a few weeks later she announced she was pregnant and ended her season early as she prepared for the next exciting stage of her life.

24th May Jo-Wilfred Tsonga played the final match of his career, providing a bittersweet performance against Casper Ruud in the opening round of Roland Garros. Tsonga had competed well with the eventual finalist, losing 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 7-6 (7-0). Whilst he showed his old magic, even finding a way to break in the fourth set, it was heartwrenching in the end as the Frenchman injured himself as he came out to serve at 6-5 up in the fourth set and barely won a point from there, his movement painfully exposed and his serve losing all potency. He was then celebrated on court by his comrades and his family, the great entertainer having put on one last wonderful show.

30th May Marin Čilić beat Daniil Medvedev in the night session at Roland-Garros in dazzling fashion, in one of the Croatian’s best performances on clay. Medvedev, a well-established top player and recent major champion, was rendered absolutely helpless as Čilić blasted power shots past him from every position imaginable. Čilić is well liked and this result pleased a lot of tennis fans, especially after he built on it to reach the semifinals.

31st May Nadal and Djokovic played the latest installment of their epic rivalry with a four-hour, four-set late night match in Paris featuring insane momentum-shifting moments from both players. Whenever these two collide it is always worth watching, and the match brought France and the wider tennis world to a standstill. Nadal prevailed, impressively managing to avoid a fifth set, and set himself on the path to a 14th Roland Garros title. Other highlights in this run worth mentioning were his fending off Auger-Aliassime in five sets, his excruciating battle with Zverev and his imperious performance in the final against Ruud. 

Pre-match. Photo: Owen Lewis

1st June Holger Rune established himself as the latest pantomime villain in tennis after alleging Casper Ruud screamed in his face in the locker room after their Roland-Garros quarterfinal. A meme is born. 

4th June Iga Świątek capped her incredible winning streak with a seemingly inevitable second Roland-Garros title. This seems an appropriate point to mark the achievement of the longest WTA winning streak this century, which reached 37 before Świątek’s loss to Alize Cornet at Wimbledon. The Roland-Garros final was a typical Świątek dominant performance, 6-1, 6-3 against Coco Gauff, showing that her game was levels above the nearest challenger. A US Open title would follow later in the year, but Paris was the ultimate high point for her game in 2022. 

12th June Home wildcard Tim Van Rijthoven, ranked outside the Top 200, somehow won the ATP 250 in Rosmalen. He beat the top three seeds in Fritz, Auger-Aliassime and Medvedev in the Final and became one of the sensations of the grass court season. 

19th June Beatriz Haddad Maia won her second consecutive grass court title in Birmingham, having won Nottingham the week before. This run put the Brazilian back on the tennis map having shown promising signs earlier in the year. The momentum wouldn’t benefit Haddad Maia at Wimbledon, but gave her some belief in her impressive run to the Toronto final in August.

29th June – Scott Barclay is given Wimbledon Centre Court tickets by Judy Murray, making him a star of Twitter (and the BBC).

1st July – After years of heartbreak and close calls, Heather Watson finally reached the fourth round of Wimbledon after beating Kaja Juvan. Venus Williams teamed up with Jamie Murray in the mixed doubles to mark her return to the tour, and showed her enduring fighting spirit as they won their opening match.

5th July – Cameron Norrie provided the highlight of the British tennis year by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals. He beat David Goffin on Court One in five sets, showing that his Indian Wells form in 2021 was definitely not a one-off.

6th July – Rafael Nadal beat Taylor Fritz in a dramatic Wimbledon quarterfinal. This was despite being injured, as the Spaniard looked hampered early on but played himself into the match. Fritz had won the Indian Wells title in similar circumstances and would avenge the defeat at the ATP Finals. However, Nadal did not know when to give up in this match and refused to lose, even though playing on effectively compromised the rest of his season. 

7th July – Ons Jabeur beat Tatjana Maria to reach her first major final at Wimbledon. The two are great friends and Maria had never been to this stage of a major in her career, a big achievement for the 34-year-old mother of two. Jabeur recognised this, and insisted on Maria sharing the limelight at the end of the match. Ons would go on to lose in the final to Elena Rybakina despite being the heavy favourite, Rybakina having played at an unbelievable level for 2 weeks

7th August – Daniil Medvedev finally won an ATP Title in 2022, dethroning defending champion Norrie in Los Cabos. It’s a small consolation for what has been a very tough season, although he would go on to win another title in Vienna later in the year.

14th August Coco Gauff became the world number one in doubles after winning the Montreal 1000 title alongside Jessica Pegula, their second of the year. The precocious 18-year-old had already wowed a few weeks earlier with her run to the Roland-Garros singles final. It was impressive on the court not only because she didn’t drop a set before that final, but also in her mature off-court interviews. However, Gauff and Pegula were regularly tearing it up in the doubles, reaching the Roland-Garros final in that discipline too. This was despite tough competition from other teams like Krejčíková/Siniaková and Kudermetova/Mertens over the course of the year. Gauff finding this level of success whilst still young confirms that the promise she showed aged 15 at Wimbledon 2019 is still very much there. In fact, Coco is now the second youngest player to be ranked number one in women’s doubles, after Martina Hingis.

21st August – Borna Ćorić won an unexpected Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, having beaten Nadal and Tsitsipas on the way. It was one of, if not the biggest underdog stories on the ATP Tour in 2022. Ćorić had come back from injury having shown a lot of promise early on in his career, so seeing him lift one of the biggest titles on the tour was very pleasing.

31st August – Serena Williams beat world number two Anett Kontaveit on Arthur Ashe Stadium. After a tough farewell tour as she ‘evolves’ away from tennis, Serena’s level stepped up at the U.S. Open, the last time she intended to play the sport professionally. She was able to compete well and her eventual final match was a tough battle with Ajla Tomljanović on the 2nd of September. But the fact that this great champion could still beat a top 20 player even when aging and rusty is a testament to how strong a competitor she is. Serena Williams ended her career on her terms, and we got to see the best of her on the court in the process, and it was great to see. 

3rd September – Petra Kvitová beat Garbiñe Muguruza 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (12-10) in a wonderfully tight battle between two multiple major champions.

7th September – A special day of tennis headlines. Aryna Sabalenka reached the U.S. Open semifinals after a tough start to the year as she struggled with service yips. Yet she recaptured her form in New York and produced the level we all knew she could. Frances Tiafoe backed up his win over Rafael Nadal with an impressive victory against Andrey Rublev to make the semi-finals. For those who know his story, it was a great moment in the spotlight for the American who has had to overcome so much adversity in his life. This along with his talent and his capacity to entertain meant everyone was very excited to see him in the latter stages of a major. Then the night session saw an incredible battle between two stars of the future as Carlos Alcaraz overcame Jannik Sinner after saving a match point. The quality of rallies and the consistent intensity throughout the match made it the best contest of the year, and gave a lot of hope that this rivalry between the youngsters would entertain for years to come. 

11th September – Carlos Alcaraz won the U.S. Open. The future seemed to have arrived at the moment the teenage Spaniard celebrated sealing match point, after a tough run to the title that saw him having to overcome Čilić, Sinner, Tiafoe and Ruud, all in very close matches, the first three of which went to five sets. Alcaraz’s status as a true contender for majors was confirmed and sets up an interesting dynamic with current greats Djokovic and Nadal going forward.

23rd September Roger Federer played the final professional match of his career at the Laver Cup, partnering with Rafael Nadal for Team Europe. Despite an impressive serving performance from the great Swiss and having match point in the deciding tie-break, they lost to Team World’s Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe. However, the result didn’t actually matter. It was nice to see Federer on court again, even if we knew it would be the last time. As much as there were entertaining moments in the match, it was the final point everyone was waiting for. Once that was done, Federer dissolved into tears as the emotion of it all took over. As his family and team-mates celebrated his career along with the media and the crowd, two images stood out: Federer holding Nadal’s hand during the tributes and then him being held aloft by his fellow European players. Despite the loss, Roger went out on a high.

9th October Barbora Krejčíková beat Iga Świątek 5-7, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 in one of the matches of the year to win the title in Ostrava!!! Krejčíková had come back after being hampered by injury and COVID in the middle part of the season, but showed her class to end Świątek’s dominance in finals, closing out the match after an absolutely scintillating final game. The 2021 Roland-Garros Champion is starting to establish herself as one of the most clutch players on tour. The match was competitive to the end, with both players playing at an incredible level.

23rd October – Jessica Pegula won the final 1000 event of the year in Guadalajara. The American was the most consistent singles player throughout the year, regularly featuring in the latter stages of tournaments, often losing to the eventual champion. It was deserved that Pegula’s persistence was rewarded with a title, and a big one at that, as she rose to third in the singles rankings.

3rd November Gilles Simon plays the final match of his career against Felix Auger-Aliassime at the last 16 of the Paris Masters. Simon had run out of steam after two epic wins against Andy Murray and Taylor Fritz. Even though it was his last event, he was almost defying retirement even as it stared him in the face. It was very similar to his Roland-Garros run, where he somehow beat Pablo Carreño Busta in five sets and followed up with a straight-sets win against Steve Johnson, before petering out against Marin Čilić. Simon may not have had the stellar moments his fellow ‘musketeers’ Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet had, but he was a relentless competitor on the court and it was good to see him show this to the end.

7th November Caroline Garcia won the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals. Garcia brought one of the highest peaks of any player on tour during the middle part of the year, winning three titles on three surfaces in three months. Her title in Cincinnati and victory against Swiatek in Poland on clay were the main highlights. However, going into the WTA Finals Garcia was in a slump following her semifinal loss at the U.S. Open. She found her best again after a close battle with Daria Kasatkina, then outplaying Maria Sakkari and edging out Aryna Sabalenka. Garcia has shown an impressive level before, but 2022 saw her outdo herself and confirm the talent so many had spotted in her early on in her career.

20th November – Novak Djokovic got the last word after winning the ATP Finals. After having limited success in 2022 due to a self-inflicted reduced schedule and his Wimbledon title being overshadowed by international politics and the antics of Nick Kyrgios, it was good to see the Serb legitimately at the top of the game again. It was a brilliant title run to cap off an impressive Indoor season which saw Djokovic win three titles and go 18-1. In Turin, Djokovic only dropped one set and generally was a level above his opposition. In many ways it was appropriate that the man who made tennis headlines off-court at the beginning of the year was front and centre on-court at the end.