After what has to be the sports most brief offseason (barely over a month), the tennis world is almost ready to get up and running once. January 1st marks not only the turn of the new year but also the first day of the ATP Cup, the curtain-raiser on the stacked ATP calendar. Not dissimilar to the opening of the 2021 tennis season, the early days of the 2022 season are set to be shrouded in complications, few of which involved balls being struck on a tennis court. Despite the reality that Omicron continues to wreak havoc on the sports world and tennis thus far proving no exception, it looks likely that we will still have a full January schedule regardless of the amount of last-minute pullouts that might occur as a result of positive tests. Barring any drastic changes, here’s what to expect from the first month of the year on the ATP calendar.
As always, January welcomes another red-hot Aussie summer swing, although, for the second year running, the slate is a little obscured due to, you know, that whole COVID thing. As mentioned above, the ATP Cup is back for its third staging, kicking off on New Year’s Day. ATP 250’s will occur concurrently in Adelaide and Melbourne, concluding on January 9th. Another round of 250s then kicks off in Sydney and again in Adelaide (in a tournament aptly named Adelaide International 2), before the main event and the years first major, the 2022 Australian Open gets going at Melbourne Park on the 17th, concluding with the men’s final on January 31st.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR?
While the start of the season marks an opportunity for every man on the tour to start afresh and push themselves into the conversation, there are a handful of ready-made stories that will be drawing the bulk of the attention. The most obvious is a somewhat tiring “will he, won’t he?” story involving Novak Djokovic and his vaccination status, which could see him miss the entire Australian swing, including the Australian Open and a chance at a 10th title “down under.” Ultimately, there’s not much really to say on that front; we will know when we know, and at this stage, I wouldn’t rule out any possible outcome.
Maybe more intriguing is the health statuses of both Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem, both of whom could have a lot to say in Melbourne if their bodies permit. At this point, it’s tricky to determine who is more likely to make a significant dent in the Australian Open field; Nadal is coming off a major injury at 35 years old but showed flashes of his old self at the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Thiem is a relative spring-chicken at only 28 but is coming off of what has proved a pesky wrist injury, and a non-COVID-related illness will prevent him from playing himself into shape in the warm-up events. Conventional wisdom might have them both exiting early in the second week of the Happy Slam. Still, suppose either can get a friendly draw to work their way into something resembling their top-level. In that case, it is not inconceivable either, or both could find themselves on the court on finals day (mainly if Djokovic cannot make the trip).
Speaking of said warm-up events, the ongoing experiment of the ATP Cup is currently looking in dire straits. The worldwide emergence of Omicron has already contributed to a surge of positive tests among top players, and the list of ATP Cup causalities only grows day by day. So much has already been said and written about the legitimacy and viability of the tournament, with the Davis Cup still looming large as the world’s most respected team event. A depleted field that could prominently feature the likes of Dennis Novak and Dusan Lajovic as their respective country‘s top singles representatives will not exactly bolster the tournament’s claim as the premier international team competition in the sport.
SO, WHO’S WINNING?
Making predictions about the Australian Open is almost a fool’s errand until we know the status of the world’s best player. If Djokovic does play, vaccinated or exempt, he has to be favoured to take home a 10th Australian Open title. Nowhere, other than maybe at his home tournament in Belgrade, does Djokovic look more comfortable than on Rod Laver Arena, once again exemplified by his straight-sets drubbing of now world no. 2 Daniil Medvedev in last year’s final.
Medvedev has since proven he can get the better of the Serbian in a best-of-five, taking him out and denying him of the famed Calendar Grand Slam in last year’s US Open final, and should have a renewed confidence that he can do the same in Melbourne. But Djokovic’s record at the years’ first major speaks for itself, and until he shows any frailty on this court, it’s difficult to envision any other result. If Djokovic can’t find his way into Melbourne Park, the field opens dramatically, though a handful of favourites should be singled out; Medvedev, world no. 3 Alexander Zverev, world no. 4 and former two-time Aussie Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, and of course, the two aforementioned hobbled stars in former champion Rafael Nadal, and former finalist Dominic Thiem.
As for the ATP Cup, unless they are stricken with a wave of COVID-related pullouts prior to or during the tournament’s play, Russia should be overwhelming favourites based on their ruthless victories in both the Davis Cup in November and last years ATP Cup in January. The one-two top five punch of Medvedev and world no. 5 Andrey Rublev will likely be too much for any challenger to overcome, although look for Spain and Italy to provide the sternest tests.
The other lead in tournaments are more or less a crapshoot when it comes to making predictions, given we could still face another glut of pullouts in the coming days. Look for American Frances Tiafoe and South African Lloyd Harris to continue building on their respective late-season surges in the Adelaide tournaments and for proven vets Grigor Dimitrov and Roberto Bautista Agut to start their seasons on the right foot in Melbourne and Sydney, respectively.
ATP Cup: Russia
Adelaide International 1: Frances Tiafoe
Melbourne Summer Set: Grigor Dimitrov
Adelaide International 2: Lloyd Harris
Sydney Tennis Classic: Roberto Bautista Agut
Australian Open: Novak Djokovic (pending entry. If not, Daniil Medvedev)