The New Era Of Professional Tennis Has Arrived
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This year was anything but normal for professional tennis. From the shocking retirement of former world champion Ashleigh Barty in March to electrifying performances from fresh faces at the U.S. Open in September, tennis fans witnessed the ascension of the next generation of the sport. Though familiar faces dominated the grand slams early in the season—exemplified by Rafael Nadal’s championships at both the Australian and French Opens—the attention quickly shifted to some of the younger contenders on the tour.
At only 21 years old, Iga Świątek has been heralded as the future of women’s tennis. Świątek first burst onto the scene two years ago, when she claimed the French Open title and became the first Polish player to ever win a singles grand slam. Fans witnessed her potent forehand and incredible court movement during the tournament, where Świątek limited her opponents to a maximum of five games in all of her matches. However, the best was yet to come.
Following Barty’s retirement, Świątek obtained the coveted status of world number one. Shortly afterward, Świątek was the victor of a staggering 37 straight matches, with titles most notably at Indian Wells, Miami, and the French Open, again. She became the eighth woman in Open Era history to have a win streak of such length. Entering the hard court season, one of the biggest storylines was whether Świątek’s expertise would translate onto a surface that she previously had less success on. “I'm trying not to get my expectations too high because I know anything can happen,” Świątek said in an interview after her fourth-round tilt. Despite her own worries, she breezed past her competition and won the U.S. Open title with an emotional 6-2, 7-6 victory over fifth-seeded Ons Jabeur, who had reached the Wimbledon finals only a few months earlier. When asked in the post-match interview, Świątek echoed the thoughts of many tennis fans around the world. “It’s something that I wasn’t expecting for sure,” Świątek said in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s also like a confirmation for me that [the] sky is the limit.” Though she is best known for her clay court prowess, Świątek’s dominance on all surfaces this year demonstrated her versatility. Be careful, tour players. The sky may really be the limit for Świątek.
On the men’s side, there is Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, who turned heads during his performance at last year’s U.S. Open and continued his path to stardom with a strong finish in 2022. Alcaraz kicked off his professional career at 16 years old, and fans immediately took notice. Alcaraz, who had been deemed “The Next Nadal,” was already building up hype before the season.
Alcaraz started this year ranked 32nd in the world, right off a tournament win in the Next Gen Finals last December. Though many analysts already penciled him in as a breakout star, Alcaraz’s dominance this year has proved that he is much more than that. He claimed titles in Miami, Barcelona, and even Madrid, where he beat Nadal—dubbed the “King of Clay” by many—on his own signature surface. In spite of early round exits at both the French Open and Wimbledon, Alcaraz stayed determined and eventually entered the U.S. Open. He faced an incredibly tough side of the draw, where he was forced to play 15th-seeded Marin Čilić, 11th-seeded Jannik Sinner, and fan favorite Frances Tiafoe Jr., who was fresh off a thrilling win over Nadal in the fourth round. Alcaraz’s style, characterized by overwhelming speed and endurance, was put to the test in three straight five-set matches against these opponents—a mighty feat for any tennis player, let alone a teenager. Even if he wasn’t the crowd’s favorite, Alcaraz certainly impressed with his efforts and made the high ticket prices more than worthwhile. Against all odds, Alcaraz proceeded to pull through exhaustion in each match and then won the final over fellow next-generation player Casper Ruud, who had already experienced a heartbreaking defeat in the French Open final. After championship point, he could do little but collapse on the ground in relief and joy.
With the victory, Alcaraz became the youngest player to ever obtain the rank of world number one and ended the season as such. During the trophy presentation inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, he was emotional when asked what the win meant to him. “It’s something that I dreamed of since I was a kid,” Alcaraz said in the courtside interview following the final. “To be number one in the world, to be the champion of a Grand Slam, is something that I worked really, really hard for.” Though he experienced a minor setback with an abdominal tear in the waning events of the year, Alcaraz is slated to be one of the favorites going into tournaments in the 2023 season—and deservedly so.
The emergence of young talents like Świątek and Alcaraz has left tennis fans with a lot to be excited about. The retirements of greats like Roger Federer and Serena Williams have left the door open for young stars to gain fame in a game that has been long dominated by these few names. Did this year’s season mark the start of a new era for professional tennis? Perhaps, but we will simply have to wait and see.