ABOVE: Tsitsipas came agonizingly close to winning his first major in 2021.

BELOW: As we approach the start of the new tennis season, we'll answer 10 thought-provoking questions that may define the game in 2022.

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The 2021 season saw three players win their first major title. On par with 2020, the WTA debutantes continue to outpace the ATP 2:1, and the list of potential women’s winners looks as long as ever in 2022. But the presence of any breakthrough men’s champions indicates an interregnum could be underway—even if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 10 of the last 12 Grand Slam tournaments.

Strong runner-up finishes from young guns like Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas showed that long maligned “second line” is closing in on the Golden Era greats, culminating with Daniil Medvedev’s ultimate denial of history when the 25-year-old Russian wrested the Calendar Year Grand Slam from an emotionally exhausted Djokovic at the US Open.

The question of whether next season will produce another maiden major champion, therefore, looks like a foregone conclusion. The more intriguing effort comes with determining which player(s) will provide the answer. Consider six such potential stars, arranged from least to most likely to succeed:

Less Likely

Anett Kontaveit (EST)

The Estonian’s fall surge was certainly one worthy of a major title; her reward instead was a ticket to Guadalajara for the WTA Finals. Once there, Kontaveit maintained the audacious pace that earned her back-to-back titles in Moscow and Cluj Nepoca, winning her round robin group and roaring into the final—where only former world No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza could cool her fiery ground game.

Flanked by new coach Dmitry Tursunov, Kontaveit up-ended her career arc as a shaky competitor and displayed improved fitness to win just under 30 matches in 10 weeks and earn a career-high ranking of No. 7. All she lacks now is a signature Grand Slam result, something she’s surely capable of achieving in Australia with a well-spent off-season.

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Carlos Alcaraz (ESP)

At 18 years old, the heir apparent of Rafael Nadal is very much on track for a big-time career, thrilling the US Open crowd with a run to the quarterfinals to end an already impressive first full season on tour.

Like Kontaveit, Alcaraz can boast a formidable coach in Juan Carlos Ferrero, who has already guided his young countryman to a first ATP title, victory at the Next Gen Finals, and a Top 40 debut. A year after qualifying for the Australian Open, Alcaraz will, in all likelihood, be seeded in Melbourne.

It may be too obvious to tag so-called “Baby Rafa” as a surprise Roland Garros champion, especially given the hard-court bona fides he earned in New York. Depending on how next season shakes out, his relative lack of experience could help him conquer a nervous older rival or expose him against a more established champion.

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More Likely

Leylah Fernandez (CAN)

The Canadian teenager undoubtedly rode a wave to reach her first major final at the US Open, playing pitch-perfect tennis against an exact combination of impressive, but undercooked, opponents.

“Everything is going her way,” sighed beaten semifinalist Aryna Sabalenka, who noted the New York crowd’s embrace of the smiling Canadian. One could argue repeating the feat will be doubly difficult, something that was arguably on display in her fourth-round exit at the BNP Paribas Open a month later.

At the same time, Fernandez’s counterpunching game isn’t the kind that relies on 50 winners to take control of a match. What her run in Flushing revealed was a tremendous competitive mind, one that could easily channel an inspired crowd for another hot streak. With those elements all together, there’s no telling how much farther she may go.

Matteo Berrettini (ITA)

Daniil Medvedev’s US Open and Davis Cup victories brought renewed focus on his generation of Russian men, but much can be similarly said about Berrettini’s flag-waving for Italy.

The effortlessly powerful 25-year-old is one of an Italian octet in the Top 100—including three in the Top 30. He positioned himself as the undisputed head of that pack during a scintillating grass-court swing that featured a Queen’s Club title and Wimbledon final.

Two years removed from his first big run to the 2019 US Open semifinals, Berrettini shook off a sophomore slump to become a consistent major player, reaching the second week of in five of his last six Grand Slam appearances. Had it not been for Novak Djokovic, one could imagine the Italian going even farther in Paris or New York, and with another year’s experience, he may like his chances in a rematch with the Serb.

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Most Likely

Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)

Tsitsipas surely scrolled through his share of motivational quotes after coming so close to conquering Djokovic for the title at Roland Garros. Up two sets and serving against the out-of-sorts world No. 1, the enigmatic Greek star had just to hold off a late charge to regain his well-earned momentum.

Instead, he cracked and the months that followed were largely forgettable. More of the same may have been expected for Tsitsipas in the opening weeks of 2022 were it not for his late-season elbow surgery, one that appears to have revitalized the 23-year-old and made him readier than ever to fulfill what he certainly believes is his destiny.

Indeed, it takes a certain mind to shake off crushing disappointment, and the former world No. 3 appears equipped with just the right amount of elite athlete delusion to believe a major trophy is well within his grasp.

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Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)

What athletes say after a tough loss is often more important than how they’ve played. Sabalenka’s aforementioned defeat to Leylah Fernandez was as tough as they come, particularly during the crunchy final game through which she largely failed to find the court.

Ever emotional on court, the 23-year-old came to press with an exactly correct perspective: she had lost to the better player on that day. Subsequent messages on social media indicated the Belarusian, who went from never making it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam to reaching back-to-back semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open, knows she’s on the precipice of winning a big title.

COVID-19 interrupted her fall campaign and left her rusty at the WTA Finals, but with titles on all surfaces and wins over the game’s best players, an off-season should do the big-hitter a world of good as she prepares to finish what she started in 2021.