Australian summer begins with bang: Nadal, Barty, Murray, Swiatek, Osaka, Azarenka in one day

Melbourne and Adelaide join the fray; at ATP Cup in Sydney, GB lose but all to play for in Group C

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Jay Town/Tennis Australia)

Sydney has already opened the floodgates as tennis launches into another new season: Not a day of 2022 would be wasted as the ATP Cup got under way on 1 January with no fewer than nine top-12 players leading 16 teams.

But that was just the start. Within two days, other major cities in Australia had launched into five more tournaments, two in Adelaide, and three in Melbourne.

For these are vital weeks of early preparation ahead of the all-too-soon first Major of the calendar: the Australian Open begins in under two weeks’ time, and bodies have to bounce back from fatigue, injury niggles, and in a few cases, positive Covid infections, to begin the ultimate tennis challenge: a 128-person draw, and seven match-wins to claim the singles title.

Some familiar faces have not made it: Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Bianca Andreescu have all been forced by health issues to stay away. But make no mistake, there is a packed schedule for the run-up to the Australian Open.

Take the first Tuesday of 2022 in Melbourne: Naomi Osaka and Andy Murray played their first singles matches, while Rafael Nadal, Simona Halep and Sam Stosur opened their doubles accounts, forced onto the outside courts by the heavyweight draws that make up the three Melbourne Summer Set events.

Stir in the watchable pairing of Grigor Dimitrov with David Goffin—returning from an injury-blighted 2021—and fans could be expected in their droves.

Head west 700 kilometres to find the same kind of competition for show courts in Adelaide, and little wonder. All eight seeds in the WTA500 draw were ranked in the top 15, and led by home favourite and world No1 Ash Barty. And there she was, on Court 4, playing in the doubles draw.

Meanwhile, Iga Swiatek took on and beat Aussie Daria Saville, while former Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin played for the first time since Wimbledon, and also won. Perhaps the biggest opener saw another former Australian champion, Victoria Azarenka, take on Indian Wells titlist, Paula Badosa.

All that, and the ATP Cup was approaching the midway stage of the group sessions, with Tuesday’s schedule bringing to the table Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini, Cam Norrie—top-10 players all.

So in this smorgasbord of tennis, where were the key moments?

Murray scheduled for first Australian Open in three years

Murray, playing with a wild card, opened his 2022 season against world No76 Facundo Bagnis, and with the prospect of Dimitrov in the second round. But he did not reach that far, losing out to the Argentine in an error-strewn three-setter, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. The Briton’s serve let him down, and his frustration was clear, but the loss leaves him with some hard work ahead of the Australian Open in 10 days’ time.

Murray has a wild card for the Major that he last played in 2019, when he made a tear-stained exit from the first round in a memorable five-setter against Roberto Bautista Agut. He went on to have what looked like career-ending hip surgery, but the 34-year-old ended 2021 with a 15-14 record on the main tour and with wins over Dan Evans and Nadal in the Mubadala exhibition event in Abu Dhabi.

Nadal returns from foot injury

World No6 Nadal is scheduled to return to singles action after a five-month absence due to a foot injury as the top seed in Melbourne. However, he opened his account with a win in doubles with Jaume Munar, 6-3, 3-6, 10-4. It was a promising start considering Nadal tested positive for Covid after the Mubadala event two weeks ago, but the real test—perhaps both a singles and doubles match in one day—will come on Thursday.

World No1 Barty hopes for home glory

Barty, No1 for more than 100 weeks, returned to court in doubles after a three-month recuperative break back home, but the Aussie favourite certainly faces a tough draw in her first singles appearance since the 2021 US Open.

The 2020 Adelaide champion shares the tournament with four more top-10 players that include defending champion Iga Swiatek, world No2 Aryna Sabalenka, and two former Australian Open champions in the shape of unseeded Azarenka and Kenin.

Barty’s top half of the draw was particularly packed, with Swiatek, Kenin, US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez and her first opponent, Coco Gauff, who she faced and beat in that doubles opener.

Another big name, Petra Kvitova, lost her first match, but that left a stand-out first-round contest between the two women who vied for the Indian Wells title in October, Azarenka and Badosa. That was won by the surging Spanish 24-year-old in a final-set tie-breaker, but their show-stopper at the end of a frantic day in Adelaide saw Azarenka impress with a straight-sets win in a high-quality match. The two friends, though, are still together in the doubles draw.

Osaka also back from extended absence

Osaka’s rise to the top of women’s tennis—four Major titles, two WTA1000s and the No1 ranking as she transitioned from teenager to her early 20s—took a toll on the Japanese star. Not for the first time, she took a step back from the pressure of the spotlight in 2021, missing Wimbledon and then not playing after her third-round loss at the US Open. So her progress this week will be watched with considerable interest.

Australia has been a happy hunting ground for her, and the Melbourne draw should ease her in comfortably—she came through a tricky opener against Alize Cornet in three sets. There is only one other top-20 woman in the draw, the second seed Simona Halep, who missed a swathe of 2021 with injury problems. The Romanian warmed up in Melbourne with a doubles loss with Elena-Gabriela Ruse—who she will play in her first singles match.

ATP Cup catch-up

With two of the three round-robin phases now played, Spain, Russia and Argentina are in pole positions for quarter-final spots, but Group C is still wide open after Canada bounced back from an opening-round loss to beat GB, who had won their first tie against Germany.

The Germans, who lost out to GB in the doubles rubber on Sunday, won both their singles matches against the USA. Zverev, therefore, has won both his singles matches, as has British No2 Dan Evans, but Norrie has lost both of his singles matches.

Italy hit back in style in Group B after an opening loss to Australia, as Berrettini and Sinner combined to win all three matches over France. The French, indeed, along with Greece and Georgia in Group D and Norway in Group A, look to be out of contention, though in this tournament, there are points and prizes for every win, so there will certainly be more to play for even in the ‘dead’ ties.

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