Most Big Names Hitting The Courts Down Under, Ready To Start New Season

Andy Murray

WASHINGTON, December 30, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The start of the 2022 tennis season is upon us, it seems, just a few days after the 2021 season has ended. Where did the off season go? Was there an off season?

Most, if not all, major players have arrived Down Under in Australia in the past few days such as Naomi Osaka and Andy Murray, to name but a few – and Ashleigh Barty has been at home in Australia since cutting her 2021 season short after the US Open to preserve her mental and physical wellbeing. Most everyone seems to be in good spirits.

However, the biggest name missing in action is men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic – ruled out of the ATP Cup, which begins Saturday, earlier this week. Djokovic’s status for the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 17 remains a mystery.

While some players are sharpening their games, others are getting acquainted to new coaches. One thing’s certain: the icy-blue courts in Melbourne, coupled with the warm Aussie Summer conditions, means the Australian hard-court swing is upon us.

Djokovic’s status for Australian Open remains uncertain

Novak Djokovic’s Serbian teammates are clueless as to why the World No. 1 withdrew from the ATP Cup and they don’t know if he’s going to compete at the Australian Open, where he’s the nine-time defending champion.

While the withdrawal of Djokovic from the ATP Cup became official Wednesday, it followed days of speculation that he would skip the season-opening event on the ATP 2022 calendar, which begins Jan. 1 in Sydney.

The 34-year-old’s vaccination status remains a mystery. He has repeatedly declined to comment about it in recent months. Every player who plans to compete in Australia, whether in one of the Summer Set lead-up events in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, or the Australian Open, must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.


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In addition to the news about Djokovic, ATP Cup organizers announced France has replaced Austria in the 16-country event following the withdrawals of both Dominic Thiem and Dennis Novak. Additionally, World No. 5 Andrey Rublev of Russia pulled out of the competition as well as Russian teammates Aslan Karatsev and Evgeny Donskoy.

With Djokovic absent from at least the ATP Cup, World No. 33 Dusan Lajovic has been thrusted into the No. 1 singles position for Serbia’s ATP Cup team, which begins play Saturday against Norway and Top 10-star Casper Ruud.

“We knew, I think, a day-and-a-half ago or something like that,” Lajovic said during a Team Serbia press conference Thursday in advance of the start of the ATP Cup on Saturday. “I think we’re all waiting for that last-minute decision and it’s never the same when you have the No. 1 in your team and you don’t have it – it’s a big difference.

“Obviously, you know, when Novak is in the team, the expectations get much higher. Then, everybody is put in the spotlight on Novak, of course, and then trying to push the whole team.

“Right now, maybe we’re on the sideline a little bit, and it could be good for us, it could be bad – we’ll see.

“But it’s definitely different and we’ll get to see what happens after the tournament and how it goes.

“Unfortunately, he’s not able to come here, but, you know, he was, I think, hoping same as we did, that somehow he will be here. Unfortunately, he not, and we’ve got to deal with it.”

Lajovic was asked if he thought Djokovic may still arrive in Melbourne in time to play in the Australian Open and defend his title. He said: “We don’t know right now. Hopefully, he will be there, and be able to play the Grand Slam.”

There’s tennis galore coming Down Under

With the ATP Cup (Jan. 1-9) in Sydney, the Adelaide International (Jan. 2-15), Melbourne Summer Set (Jan. 3-9) at Melbourne Park and the Sydney Tennis Classic (Jan. 9-15), there’s plenty of tennis to start the New Year. There will hardly be a lack of competition, that’s for sure.

Mercurial Aussie Nick Kyrgios, awarded a wild card for the Sydney Tennis Classic, a new one-off tournament at Sydney Olympic Park, looks forward to the tune-up event before the Australian Open.


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“I’ve been training at home in Canberra and here in Sydney and I feel good after an extended break from the game,” the 93rd-ranked Kyrgios said earlier this week. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kyrgios was limited to playing in just seven tournaments in 2021. He compiled a 7-7 win-loss record and finished the season on a four-match losing streak. He hasn’t played since a straight-set, first-round loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in the US Open last August.

“I’m looking forward to the final hit-out before the AO, thanks to Tennis Australia for the opportunity to play,” he added.

While there have been increasing player withdrawals in advance of the Australian Summer Swing, late word is that 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal has overcome his bout with COVID-19 following his semifinal run earlier this month at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and is headed for Australia.

Nadal tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning to Spain after the exhibition, in which Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov, Belinda Bencic and Ons Jabeur also tested positive for the coronavirus after competing in the exhibition event in the Emirates capital city. Emma Raducanu also tested positive and withdrew before the start of play.

“I am not playing at all for money or just for fun,” Nadal said in Abu Dhabi. “I am playing to keep achieving goals or at least to enjoy the process to try to achieve my goals.”

Fully vaccinated, the World No. 6 Nadal this week resumed training and will be the top seed in an ATP 250 event in Melbourne next week.

Among the women, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, as well as Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep, are but a few of the top names who will see action during the first week of 2022.

Osaka, the defending Australian Open women’s champion, played in just three tournaments and seven matches (four wins, three losses) following the Tokyo Olympics. She’s not played since the US Open – putting her mental health front and center – and begins the new season ranked 13th. Looking ahead, Osaka is the only one of this year’s Australian Open semifinalists who will be in the 2022 draw.

As for Barty, she hopes to improve upon her past two Australian Open finishes. In 2020, she was upset by eventual champion Sofia Kenin during the semifinals, and in 2021 she fell in the quarterfinals to Karolina Muchova. Last season, Barty began with a title win in the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne, the first of five titles she won (along with Miami, Stuttgart, Wimbledon and Cincinnati). She will start the new season as the top seed at the WTA 500 in Adelaide.

Noteworthy …

World No. 11 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, coming off of one of her best seasons in which she reached the singles final of the French Open and won the Tokyo Olympics gold medal in mixed doubles, has tested positive for COVID-19. The 30-year-old Russia confirmed she contracted the coronavirus and is isolating after arriving in Australia on Tuesday.

“I was fully vaccinated and was preparing for the start of the season in Dubai,” Pavlyuchenkova, 30, said Thursday via social media. “But we live in a very difficult and unpredictable time. Right now, I am in complete isolation, in a special hotel and following all the protocols under the supervision of doctors.

“Now it’s important to take care of yourself and the health of others. I’ll be back on court when it’s safe for everyone.”

Pavlyuchenkova was scheduled to begin her season next week in Melbourne in one the WTA 250 events at Melbourne Park. Now, the three-time Australian Open quarterfinalist’s place in the upcoming 2022 AO main draw is in doubt.

Samantha Stosur of Australia, the 2011 US Open champion, announced this week on Instagram that the 2022 Australian Open will be her final singles event. The 382nd-ranked Stosur received a wild card into the main draw.

Stosur, who is ranked 16th in the world in doubles, will continue to play doubles through the 2022 season. She and Zhang Shuai won the US Open and Western & Southern doubles titles this year.


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What they’re sharing on social media

Victoria Azarenka / G’day mate!

“Quotable …”

“I guess that’s how it is going to be generally in [a] few year’s time, potentially maybe in three years’ time. So getting used to it earlier, it’s pretty much a new reality. Let’s see how tennis works out without the top three. I really want to see which players are going to prevail at this point.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, during the Team Greece press conference Thursday, asked how he assesses his chances looking ahead to the Australian Open with the prospect of all or some of the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) missing in action.