As we reach the end of the Australian Open’s first week, there are some signs of what’s to come in the near and distant future. Now that collectively, players have some substantial experience of the 2022 season, and with a few tournaments under their belts, what does the development of the ATP tour look like?
The first is that Daniil Medvedev leads the field. While he has yet to take the number 1 ranking, Medvedev has proved dominant so far in his singles efforts. After an initial loss to Ugo Humbert in the round-robin stage of the ATP Cup, he beat Alex de Minaur, Matteo Berrettini and Felix Auger-Aliassime.
At the Australian Open, he achieved bruising straight-set victories over Henri Laaksonen and Botic van de Zandschulp. Only against Nick Kyrgios in the third round has Medvedev dropped a set.
Medvedev’s unorthodox takeback (which is extremely short) make his groundstroke reactions quick and efficient, helping remove time from his opponents. Especially on hard courts, his flat style of hitting makes for penetrative shots that keep low and skid through the court, meaning even regular rally balls are difficult to return. This is particularly the case for players who are used to trading looping topspin shots.
He is keen to go for winners on his serve, with aces down the “T” and out-wide. Medvedev also has an impressive reach, which aids court coverage under challenging situations, chasing down a ball across the baseline or running towards the net. He also likes to play with variation, with drop shots, spin and the occasional improvised shot that catches opponents by surprise.
Combined with the steady increase in consistency over the years since turning pro in 2014, Medvedev has matured into one of the deadliest players to face on tour. He is undoubtedly the favourite to win the Open this year, adding a second grand slam to his tally.
The second point to note is that the “new three” of Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas form a group of players gradually replacing the big three. The Greek is also playing well in Australia.
In his most recent match against Benoit Paire, Tsitsipas’s return of service appears to have substantially improved, hitting close to his opponent’s feet and going for winners early on in the rally. Risky and previously unreliable shots now seem more consistent, where acute angles from his one-handed backhand or inside-in forehand winners are hitting their mark.
Tsitsipas also looks more mentally settled at grand slam events, with no hesitation to close out a point and taking half-volleys at the baseline with little error.
For years, commentators and analysts were looking for a moment that meant the end to the hegemony of the big three. Perhaps something akin to Roger Federer’s toppling of Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 was expected as a changing of the guard moment.
By now, it is clear that this has not occurred. Instead of a sudden alteration in dominance, tennis is experiencing a slow transition, where younger talents of Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas are now emerging in key grand slam matches.
Nadal remains a tour de force of the game, still deep into the Australian Open draw, and still with a significant chance of winning the tournament. Conspicuous by his absence, Djokovic would have defended his title with all his talent and consistency.
Vaccine and border politics have stopped Djokovic from competing here in Melbourne, not a relative decline in his world-class game.
However, the new three have all made appearances in grand slam finals. The Russian beat Djokovic in the 2021 US Open final, and Tsitsipas took Djokovic to five sets in the Roland Garros final last year.
Combined with their growing share of career titles (Medvedev 13; Zverev 19; Tsitsipas 7) and hold of the number 2, 3 and 4 rankings, this year will likely see the further defeat of the big three.
Aside from the upper-echelons of the game, the third point is that success appears divided between the very young and tour veterans.
The staying-power of Marin Čilić is especially relevant, given that his victory over Andrey Rublev makes him the seventh active player to reach the fourth round of a grand slam 25 times, alongside Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka. Gaël Monfils has already been mentioned as another experienced hand continuing to be a prominent force on tour.
On the other end of the age range, Jannik Sinner is making huge gains year on year. Sinner has enjoyed a meteoric rise, from being ranked outside the top 100 at the start of 2019 to being ranked inside the top 50 in 2020, and now holds a number 10 ranking at the Australian Open.
A tall player with long arms and legs moves exceptionally well and remains physically agile when changing direction. Booming groundstrokes and remarkable consistency in his backhand mean he has excelled at clay and hard court tournaments, winning the most recent of his five titles at the 2021 Antwerp Masters.
His matches in Australia have shown his mature disposition on the court, celebrating when the occasion demands but rarely showing signs of mental distress or anger at rough patches in performance.
During the third round against Japan’s Taro Daniel, Sinner’s calm demeanour allowed him to use his powerful groundstrokes but not overshoot or go for too much. This lethal combination of ball speed and cognitive control has preserved Sinner’s chances of running deep into a grand slam and portends to more considerable success in the future.
Tennis is in slow flux. At the Australian Open, Medvedev, not Djokovic, has taken centre-stage. The Russian seems to be riding high on a string of well-executed grand slam matches following his US Open victory.
While the big three still make appearances at majors, their participation in crucial matches is beginning to be phased out by the new three. While a few veterans of the tour can make tough opponents, younger talents like Sinner pave the way for upcoming hopes of significant victory.
What trends can you spot at the Australian Open? Can Medvedev win a slam down-under? And how prominently will the big three feature this year? Let me know in the comments.