Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon assesses where things stand ahead of the first Grand Slam.
Now that we’re firmly entrenched in the tennis offseason, we can ponder and look at topics that aren’t bound to the week’s matches.
Because there are no matches during the offseason, that’s the point. No, we do not count Andy Murray beating Rafael Nadal at an exhibition event as newsworthy. Sorry. Nor do we count the seemingly daily discussion about who is or isn’t the greatest player in men’s tennis history. (The debate, for all intents and purposes, ended this season but this is neither here nor there.)
This week in this space, we’re using the lull in action as an opportunity to look ahead. We’re looking ahead, past the holidays, and past the new year, looking ahead at the first Grand Slam of the 2022 season. We’re about a month removed from the start of the event, why not take stock of where things stand ahead of the 2022 Australian Open?
On the men’s side
The race to 21 continues on the ATP World Tour. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer all sit at 20 career Grand Slams, and this major offers one new chance to distance themselves. Of course, their chances aren’t equal: the Spaniard hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2009 and has just announced that he has tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, Federer has only played a handful of matches in almost two full years, a streak that will stop at Wimbledon at the earliest. Then there’s Djokovic, who’s won the Australian Open as many as nine times and who’s working on a possible four-peat for 2022. The Serb will be the favourite in Melbourne…if he even gets to play!
Earlier this fall, the Australian government instituted a vaccine requirement for all foreign visitors, including athletes competing in the country. This seems like it could be a problem for someone like Djokovic, who, while never going fully anti-vaccine, has been rather skeptical of things. But maybe it’s all for naught? Serbia picked the world No. 1 to be part of its team at the ATP Cup; the event is held in Sydney in January, which suggests that Djokovic would be vaccinated if he wants to compete.
On the women’s side
As for the WTA, all eyes in Melbourne will be on 25-year-old Ashleigh Barty. The Australian is the current best player in women’s tennis and has knocked on the door of her home slam over the past three years, without ever fully breaking through. Can 2022 be her year? After a semifinal sandwiched with two quarterfinals over the past three years, Barty is among the favourites next month.
Barty is the face of the WTA, especially with talented champions Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu having stepped away from the sport in recent years to focus on their mental well-being. It’s easy to forget, but not so long ago it was Barty herself who was leaving the sport. Her exile lasted two full years, and time since has proven that it was the right decision. If there’s a silver lining for Andreescu and Osaka, this is it. Things can, and do, get better.
On the covid side
As has been the case since March 2020, there may not be a single most formidable opponent next month than the coronavirus. The virus has forced us to change, confront and overall reassess the way we want to live our lives, but evidently we haven’t done so hard enough. If we had truly stopped putting our heads in the sand, then perhaps we could be looking at some sort of return to normalcy. Not now, but soon.
But with the new Omicron variant, things seem like they are back to square one. Once again, it seems deeply, deeply irresponsible, stupid and silly to have professional sports in the wake of looming doom—yet here we are. Here we are, pretending like COVID-19 still isn’t dangerous, killing thousands and infecting even more thousands every day. All in the name of watching our favourite athletes hit tennis balls and complete the unthinkable.
It’s not right and never will be. Just because we collectively will soon be going into the third year of pretending like it isn’t, doesn’t make this any less true.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG