For nearly 20 years, men’s tennis has been dominated by three transcendent players — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Tennis fans have been wondering for 10 of those years when the Big Three would finally cede ground to a new generation. Although a few players have managed to break through and win a major title during this stretch, the trio’s grip on the Grand Slams has been vicelike. As of this past year’s U.S. Open, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic had won an astounding 63 of the past 77 Slams.
This year, however, the Big Three finally became a Big Two when Federer retired after playing his final match in London at the Laver Cup, finally opening up some room for other stars to rise, if they can. Nadal and Djokovic still won three of the season’s four slams. And although Nadal finished the season in a slump, Djokovic concluded the year on a tear. After missing the U.S. Open due to the United States declining to grant him a visa because of his continued refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Djokovic won tournaments in Tel Aviv and Kazakhstan, reached the finals of the Paris Masters, and won the ATP Finals in Turin, Italy. Let’s have a look back at the year that was in men’s tennis of 2022.
Player of the Year: Rafael Nadal.
Nadal did finish the year on a concerning downward trend, losing his final four matches, the first time he had lost that many matches in a row since 2009. But the first two-thirds of the season gave us a Nadal that was as good as any iteration of the all-time Spanish great we had ever seen. In the middle of the season, he won the French Open for a mind-boggling 14th time. And in the latter part of the season, he made the semifinals of Wimbledon before an abdominal injury deprived him of the opportunity to go for the calendar-year Grand Slam (winning all four majors in the same year). The form Nadal displayed at the French Open, which included defeating Djokovic in a scintillating quarterfinal and eviscerating Norway’s Casper Ruud in the final, was frequently staggering. But the way that his body broke down toward the end of the season indicates that he may not have many such seasons left. We should celebrate this all-time great while we still can.
Breakout Player of the Year: Carlos Alcaraz.
The 36-year-old Nadal finished the season ranked No. 2 in the world. And who, you ask, finished the season ahead of him? That would be his fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who at the age of 19 became the youngest ever men’s player to become world No. 1 in the history of the ATP rankings. The Spanish sensation exceeded even the grandest expectations of tennis fans last year. Many of us thought he would eventually reach No. 1 — we just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Yes, there should be an asterisk next to his ranking that indicates that the actual (and still) best player in the world, Djokovic, had his ranking plummet due to having been deprived of being able to play the Australian Open and the U.S. Open last year and got no points for winning Wimbledon after Russians and Belarusians were banned from the tournament.
Alcaraz won five tournaments this season and became the first teenager to win a slam since Nadal in 2005. Perhaps most impressively, he became the first player to defeat Djokovic and Nadal back to back in a clay court tournament when he beat two of the three greatest players in tennis history in Madrid — and on consecutive days, no less. Federer’s departure from tennis this year gave us much reason to be sad, but the meteoric rise of Alcaraz should have tennis fans thrilled about the future, and present, of the sport.
Runner-Up Breakout Player of the Year: Holger Rune.
Match of the Year: Tie: Australian Open final — Rafael Nadal defeating Daniil Medvedev, 2-6, 6-7(5-7), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5; U.S. Open quarterfinal — Carlos Alcaraz defeating Jannik Sinner, 6-3, 6-7(7-9), 6-7(0-7), 7-5, 6-3.
This year, Nadal finally once again got the better of the slam that has bedeviled him like no other. He lost the first two sets but came back to win the next three in a five-set match against Medvedev.
One of Nadal’s heartbreaking Australian Open losses came in 2012 when the left-handed legend lost to Djokovic in five of the most grueling sets ever played in tennis history in a match that was also the longest major final in tennis history. This year, 10 years after that classic, we witnessed version 2.0 of that duel in Sinner and Alcaraz’s five-setter at this year’s U.S. Open, a match that was the second longest U.S. Open match ever and, at 2:50 a.m., was the latest finish in U.S. Open history. Fans who stayed up watching it were rewarded with astounding rallies and stunning shot-making, highlighted by Alcaraz’s behind-the-back flick, a shot I had never seen on a tennis court. It was hard not to think we were witnessing the future of tennis.
Shot of the Year: Nadal’s dipping forehand crosscourt passing shot to save a set point vs. Alexander Zverev in his French Open semifinal — which was preceded by an almost as spectacular backhand stab from far off the court to stay in the point.
Stat of the Year: 75-25: Youngest-ever world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz’s record through his first 100 ATP matches, breaking the record previously held by Andy Roddick for the best start to a tennis career as measured through a player’s first 100 matches.
Bold Prediction for 2023: Novak Djokovic will overtake Rafael Nadal for the all-time men’s singles Grand Slam record.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and the author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema and the novel A Single Life.