Sports

Tennis Said Goodbye to Roger Federer and Hello to Carlos Alcaraz

Right after Brandon Nakashima won the ATP’s Next Gen Finals — a year-end championship for eight elite players ages 21 and under — in Milan last month, he headed to London for a vacation with his girlfriend.

Walking through the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, with its holiday lights blazing, Nakashima, 21, realized that he, too, had blazed new trails in 2022.

“It’s definitely been a very interesting year,” said Nakashima, who won his first ATP title in his hometown San Diego in September and ended the season ranked in the top 50 for the first time. “A year ago, I was playing mostly [low-level] Challenger tournaments and now I’m one of the standout new players rising up to challenge the older guys. That’s pretty exciting.”

Brandon Nakashima, above, had a breakout year, capturing his first ATP title in September, and ending the season ranked in the top 50 for the first time. Credit…Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Interesting. Exciting. Melodramatic. Breathtaking. All apt descriptions of the 2022 men’s and women’s pro tennis season. With the emergence of Iga Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz and the teary departures of Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty, it’s hard to remember a year in the sport quite like this one.

When the season began in Australia in January, Covid was still a major issue. The nine-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, whose steadfast refusal to be vaccinated for Covid-19 polarized fans worldwide, was detained for hours at the Melbourne Airport and then placed in lockdown at an immigration detention hotel.

He was ultimately sent home just as the tournament was starting.

With Federer in Switzerland nursing his ailing knee, Rafael Nadal, who had not won a major since the 2020 French Open, beat Daniil Medvedev for the men’s title and captured his 21st major championship, breaking a three-way tie with Federer and Djokovic.

Nadal, who turned 36 in June, won his first 21 matches of the year until finally falling to Taylor Fritz in the final at Indian Wells in March. He then added a 22nd major by winning his 14th French Open.

With much of the early-season drama on the men’s side, Barty, the world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champ, cruised through the women’s Australian Open, and became the first Aussie woman to win the title since 1978.

Less than two months later, she announced her retirement, paving the way for Swiatek to become No. 1. Swiatek wasted no time in proving her worth, winning 37 consecutive matches from late February to early July and claiming her second French and first United States Opens.

“I had times when I wasn’t that motivated,” Swiatek said during the year-end WTA Finals, where she lost in the semifinals to Aryna Sabalenka, who ended the year ranked No. 5. “I accept that I don’t have to feel always 100 percent motivated. But when I’m going on the court it’s still the same, I always want to win.”

Serena Williams, above, gestured to the crowd at the 2022 U.S. Open after a match against Ajla Tomljanovic. Williams won two star-studded matches at the tournament, and announced her retirement after the Open.Credit…Danielle Parhizkaran/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

If Swiatek’s rise seemed meteoric, it was nothing compared with that of Alcaraz. Still a teenager, Alcaraz began the 2022 season ranked No. 32 and ended it as the youngest year-end No. 1, at age 19. It was the first time since 2003 that someone other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray finished the season atop the ATP rankings.

In all, Alcaraz won five titles, including Masters 1000s in Miami and Madrid, where he upset three of the world’s top four players: Nadal, Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.

“This was really a head-scratching season,” said the former world No. 1 Jim Courier by phone last month. “It’s hard to look at the two No. 1s and not be amazed. Iga grabbed the mantle and didn’t let go. And Alcaraz, who we expected would be great, did it way ahead of schedule.

“There really were three legitimate No. 1s for the men this year,” Courier added. “Carlos earned it on points, but Novak was incredible, because in spite of not playing half the year, he didn’t suffer the emotional strain from being out of the game. But, in the end, I judge No. 1 on the majors and considering that Rafa won two of them, I would think most people would want his year most of all.”

There were plenty of other breakout performances. Casper Ruud reached two major finals, losing to Nadal at the French Open and Alcaraz at the U.S. Open. He was also the runner-up to Djokovic at the ATP Finals.

Holger Rune, 19, went from relative obscurity to capturing 19 of his last 21 matches, including a victory over Djokovic in the final of the Paris Masters. Fritz won in Indian Wells and took Nadal to five sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Frances Tiafoe beat Nadal and Andrey Rublev before falling in five exuberant sets to Alcaraz in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. And Nick Kyrgios finally reached his first major final at Wimbledon.

Elena Rybakina had a breakout season this year, capturing her first major at Wimbledon.Credit…Sebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Elena Rybakina captured her first major at Wimbledon, while Ons Jabeur delighted fans by reaching back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Coco Gauff reached the final at the French Open, which helped her become, at 18, the youngest woman since 2007 to finish the year ranked in the top 10.

Jessica Pegula won the WTA 1000 event in Guadalajara and ended the season ranked No. 3. And Caroline Garcia, who began the year ranked No. 74 and considering retirement, stormed back, winning four titles, including the WTA Finals, and ended up No. 4.

Year-end rankings might have been different had off-court drama not intervened. Djokovic was barred from two of the four majors, yet he still managed to win five of the 11 tournaments he entered. He was 42-7 on the season.

Russian and Belarusian players including Medvedev, Rublev, Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka were barred from all tournaments in the United Kingdom because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prompting both the ATP and the WTA to withdraw ranking points from Wimbledon, which skewed the ranking system.

Team competitions flourished in 2022. Switzerland, led by Belinda Bencic, Jil Teichmann and Viktorija Golubic, won its first Billie Jean King Cup. And Canada, led by Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, began the year by winning the ATP Cup and ended it by winning the country’s first Davis Cup.

There were ups and downs this year. Dominic Thiem, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, returned after nearly a year away because of a wrist injury. Zverev had an ankle injury at the French Open and did not play for the rest of the season. And former No. 1 Simona Halep was suspended after the U.S. Open when she failed a drug test.

Holger Rune celebrating after defeating Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at the Paris Masters. Rune had a standout season, winning 19 of his last 21 matches.Credit…Julien De Rosa/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There were tears and cheers when Serena Williams — who announced her retirement after the U.S. Open — won two star-studded night matches there, including a victory over the second-seeded Anett Kontaveit. Williams lost to Ajla Tomljanovic, but the 23-time major winner was already hinting at a possible return before she had left Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But by far the most gut-wrenching moment of the year was reserved for Federer, who played his last pro match at the Laver Cup in London in September alongside Nadal, his longtime rival and friend . With hugs and tears flowing, Federer ended a 24-year career that included 20 majors:eight at Wimbledon and six Australian, five U.S. and one French Opens.

“Someone who I have admired, who I have rivaled and also I have shared many beautiful things on and off the court was leaving,” Nadal said of his post-match display of emotion, in an interview with Reuters. “You know you’re not going to live that again, and a part of my life left with him. It was also the emotion of saying goodbye to someone who has been so important to our sport.”

The future of the sport is now in the youthful hands of Alcaraz, Swiatek, Gauff, Rune and Ruud. But even Nakashima knows there will never be another Federer.

“I grew up watching him on TV and idolizing him,” Nakashima — who still has posters of Federer and Nadal on his bedroom wall — said by phone last month. “Unfortunately, I never got to meet him. But if I did, I would just thank him for everything he’s done for our sport.”

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