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Non-Novak news: Six champions crowned in Australia this weekend. Which was the most significant?
A look at title runs by Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty and Amanda Anisimova, and what they might mean for the new season.
Published Jan 10, 2022
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Did you know that there was some tennis played over the last week in Australia? It would have been easy to miss it, considering how deeply it was buried beneath the story of a certain Serbian superstar who wasn’t playing tennis Down Under.
In between the saga of Novak Djokovic, and an ever-rising COVID-19 case count, six champions were crowned in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. Ash Barty, Rafael Nadal, Gael Monfils, Simona Halep and Amanda Anisimova won individual tour events, and Team Canada prevailed at the ATP Cup. Together this mix of new and veteran champions got the 2022 season off to an intriguingly varied start.
Each of these players has a story worth telling. That includes the newly wedded Monfils and Halep. Monfils is 35 and in his 18th year on tour, but he may have a new focus after getting married to Elina Svitolina last year. Halep now 30 years old and ranked No. 20, but this week she showed that she’s not quite ready to ride off into retirement with her two Grand Slam titles just yet. For today, though, I’ll focus on Nadal, Barty, and Anisimova, whose wins could have repercussions in different ways in 2022.
“I feel privileged and a very lucky guy to be here again,” Nadal said after beating Maxime Cressy, 7-6 (6), 6-3, to win his 89th career title at the Melbourne Summer Set event. “I am coming back from some challenging moments in terms of injuries, so I couldn’t be happier.”
Indeed, as recently as two weeks ago, Nadal’s Australian campaign seemed like it might not happen at all. A foot injury had limited him to just a couple of matches since June, and a case of COVID-19 had, he said, knocked him flat in December. Back then, it seemed that Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev would be the only serious contenders for the Australian Open title; Zverev went so far as to declare them the “new Big 3.” What a difference a week makes: Now it’s Nadal who has a title, and Djokovic whose Australian campaign may not get off the ground.
Does this make a Rafa a threat to win his long-sought second Aussie Open title? Maybe. He won just three matches at the Summer Set, over Ricardas Berankis, Emil Ruusovuori and Maxime Cressy, none of whom is ranked in the Top 90. And while he finished them all in straight sets, he didn’t blow any of those opponents out. He hit the shots he needed to win, but wasn’t relaxed enough to play offensive tennis for long periods.
Facing Cressy, a towering serve-and-volleyer, might have been the best thing that happened to Rafa. He was forced to play under pressure, make his returns with precision, and serve well. He finished strong in the serving department, hitting seven aces and making 72 percent of his first deliveries in the second set of the final. It was that type of serving that took Nadal to the Australian Open final on this same court in 2019. He lost that match, badly, to Djokovic; the good news, for him, is that if he makes it that far again, he probably won’t have to face the Serb. I wouldn’t say Nadal is the favorite, but I wouldn’t count him out, either. Let’s save the “new Big 3 talk” for another day.
“I feel good leading up to an Australian Open, like I have every year,” Ash Barty said after her 6-3, 6-2 win over Elena Rybakina in the Adelaide final. “It has absolutely no effect on the way that I prepare, or the way I’m thinking leading forward just because it’s a Grand Slam. Doesn’t change for us.”
Over the years, Barty has been adamant that, whatever the media might try to tell you, she feels no extra pressure when she plays her home Slam. Knowing her, that’s believable; Barty is as even-keel and level-headed as they come, and what you see really does seem to be what you get from her. But the results suggest that she does recognize a difference between the Australian Open and its warm-up events. This the third straight year that she has opened her season with a title Down Under, but in 2020 and 2021 she couldn’t follow those victories up with another at Melbourne Park. Both times she rode a wave of home-crowd support into the second week, and then suddenly crashed, inexplicably, against lesser players—in 2020 it was Sofia Kenin in the semis; last year it was Karolina Muchova in the quarters.
Barty couldn’t ask for a better week than the one she just had. She won the singles and doubles at a high-quality, 500-level tournament, and she beat four Top 25 players in singles—Coco Gauff, Kenin, Iga Swiatek and Rybakina—to do it. Barty dropped just one set, to Gauff; she didn’t drop her serve in her last three matches; and she looked as calm and in control of the rallies as she ever has.
Barty may not want to admit it, but the Australian Open will be different. Most obviously, she’ll have to win seven matches instead of four, and survive for two weeks instead of one. But Barty, who won the biggest title of her career at Wimbledon in July, will be different, too.
“I just had to grit my teeth into this one,” Amanda Anisimova said after her 7-5, 1-6, 6-4 win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the Melbourne Summer Set 2 final on Sunday. “Just fight for every single point.”
If there was a surprise of the week, it was Anisimova’s title run in Melbourne. The 20-year-old is ranked No. 78, and was unseeded. She hadn’t won a title in three years, and had never won one on hard courts. She barely squeaked through her opening-round match, against Alison van Uytvanck, 7-5 in the third set. And after winning the first set over Sasnovich in the final, she had lost 10 of the next 11 games.
Anisimova has given away her share of leads over the years, but this time she was the one who, as she said, gritted her teeth and made the comeback.
“I’m really happy that I could stay calm and try and play better tennis,” the New Jersey native said. “I think I started playing more aggressively, and that's what got me my win today, so I'm just extremely happy.”
The Americans to watch coming into 2022, we thought, were Taylor Fritz, Coco Gauff, Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul, among others. But there were signs that Anisimova was ready to turn a corner, too, most prominently in her close late-night loss to Karolina Pliskova in front of a packed house at the US Open last year. In reality, it was probably only a matter of time before this powerful ball-striker returned to the form that took her to the Roland Garros semifinals as a 17-year-old in 2019. Two months after that, Anismova’s father and coach, Konstantin, died of a heart attack. Not surprisingly, her career momentum was derailed, and she seemed to struggle to enjoy her time on court.
Anisimova first announced her arrival on the pro scene when she beat Aryna Sabalenka at the Australian Open three years ago. The country is a fitting place for her to make her long-awaited return to form.