If you’re one of those tennis fans who gets gloomy during the three-week tennis offseason because “there’s no tennis,” get ready to gorge on a month of smurf-colored courts in Australia to open the tennis season.
In January, Australia serves up– wait for it – 585 scheduled main draw singles matches. That doesn’t even include doubles, quallies or juniors.
Covid has forced the ATP and WTA to streamline, regionalize and give pandemic-weary players easy shots at money and points to begin 2022. It’s a Down Under palooza. G’day matey!
Questions linger, however. And here are my three biggies:
Covid: Fact– players and their teams are testing positive left and right. Each of the Australian cities where tournaments are held– Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney– have slightly different testing and isolation protocols. It could be a bumpy ride. Prepare for withdrawals. That said, Australia is no longer aiming for zero cases of Covid nationally and seems determined to hold its tennis tournaments.
Djokovic and Nadal: These two reigning GOATs carry uncertain baggage going into 2022. Rafael Nadal has not played an official match since early August. He’s entered in this week’s ATP Melbourne 250, so we’ll see how his sore feet are doing. As of this writing, we do not know if World #1 Novak Djokovic will even travel to Australia due to his vaccine status.
Osaka and Raducanu: Two women superstars wear crowns made of question marks in 2022. Naomi Osaka returns to defend her 2021 Australian Open title after taking the vast majority of the year off for mental health reasons. 2021 US Open champion and offcourt darling Emma Raducanu will attempt to show the world her tennis is for real after an uneven end of the year and recovery from Covid.
Now for a look at the six tournaments for the first full week of January, my player to watch in each, and why.
First of all, you need to know that we have moved into an era in tennis where the return of serve is becoming the most important shot, generally speaking. There’s more than one way to win a match, and players use different weapons on their way to victory, but statistically speaking, skilled returners are ruling the sport at the moment. For example, the best male returner in tennis is Novak Djokovic. He is the #1 player in the world and very possibly the best man ever to have played.
In years past, serve was king. It may still be king on certain surfaces and in favorable conditions. You can even think of serve as the king in a game of chess. It’s a very important piece. But the queen is the most powerful piece, and she represents the return in tennis right now.
Bob Bryan once asked Andre Agassi, another of the best returners in history, about what makes a good return. Agassi said: “Shorten up the stroke, then half the shortening.” On the faster blue Australian courts, a short stroke makes sense. Who has time to wind up? Some have argued this is why Nadal, with his massive backswing, has had limited success at the Australian Open.
Coaches I have spoken to Down Under say the courts at Melbourne Park are playing “medium fast” but not ultra fast, as they have in the past. With this information in mind, I have looked at the draws for this week’s tournaments and chosen my players to watch.
ATP Cup: Alex De Minaur. I’m looking for strong summers from the Aussies, both men and women, because they’re at home and generally more comfortable with local protocols. Since many of them have been in place over the break, they are less likely to have contracted Covid traveling. I’m picking Demon as a player to watch in this tournament because, quite simply, he makes returns. De Minaur makes 30% fewer unforced errors on his returns than average. His forehand and backhand returns are equally good at neutralizing a strong serve.
ATP Adelaide 250: Tommy Paul. This guy is on the come-up. In 2021, the American beat Andrey Rublev, Andy Murray, Denis Shapovalov and Francis Tiafoe. I like him in Australia because his ATP Return Ranking of 23 on hard court outpaces his overall ranking of 43. A big reason for that is his great showing in the category of 2nd serve return points won. He’s over 52% on hard, which is right up there with the big boys.
WTA Adelaide 500: Aryna Sabalenka. This tournament features some megawatt early matches, like a potential Ash Barty-Coco Gauff meetup and Paula Bedosa facing Victoria Azarenka in a rematch of their October Indian Wells classic. It’s almost unfair for those players to face such tough tests early. Meanwhile, cruising on the bottom of the draw is the 2 seed Sabalenka. I like this player because she has both a strong serve and a strong return. Faster conditions should be ideal for her. The world #2 had a break point conversion rate of almost 50% in 2021. That’s scary good.
ATP Melbourne 250: Andy Murray. Yep, you heard me. Sir Andy is back after playing himself into match shape with a flurry of appearances in the fall. His anticipation is as good as ever. The metal hip is starting to look like an asset. Let’s all have one! Murray currently stands at 4th best career returner on the ATP return ranking list for hard court. Djokovic claims Murray is the perfect returner. The real question for Murray is durability as the month wears on, but we’re just getting started this week.
WTA Melbourne 1 250: Simona Halep. Of all the tournaments this week, this particular 250 in Melbs is the toughest to judge. You’ve got Osaka and Simo, superstars and multiple Grand Slam champions, then there’s a dropoff in terms of talent. Halep is a gamer. She retrieves like nobody’s business, and her return game definitely holds up in Oz, where she was the runner up at the 2018 Open. Simo’s 2nd serve return points won is a stellar 57%. Early video of her Down Under reveals a crisp, healthy and mobile Halep.
WTA Melbourne 2 250: Sara Sorribes Tormo. What’s a Spanish clay courter doing on my Aussie list? I love this player on any surface. Trust– nobody wants to see her in their part of the draw. In 2021, she was the one who knocked Barty out of the Olympics. She also won her first WTA singles title. Yes, she lost in the second round of the US Open– to Raducanu. Which is excusable, yes? SST looks remarkably good in all the major return categories, including almost 49% of all return points won. She should figure out how to diffuse a few service bombs.
Happy Aussie watching. When you close your eyes to go to sleep at night, here’s to seeing blue for the next month.