History may come to regard 2022 as a pivotal year for American tennis, even with the retirement of the nation’s greatest player.
Serena Williams’ decision to hang up her racquet felt like a pivotal moment, such has been her dominance in the sport for more than two decades. But the same year, his compatriots showed that the future of tennis in the United States was looking bright.
On both the men’s and women’s tours, American players won more singles and doubles titles last year than any other nation – 22 on the ATP Tour and 21 on the WTA Tour.
Among those players to excel was Jessica Pegula, who moved up to No. 3 in the world rankings at the end of 2022 – the best year-end finish by an American since Williams in 2016.
Pegula, 28, also kept up her form in the new year by beating world No. 1 Iga Świątek as the United States won the inaugural United Cup earlier this month.
His relatively late rise in the rankings comes after battling injuries earlier in his career.
Eurosport pundit Laura Robson, a former junior Wimbledon champion and Olympic silver medalist, told CNN Sport that Pegula is “definitely” one of the top contenders for the women’s title.
“She’s always been an incredible striker, but she’s improved her consistency and movement so much over the last year,” Robson said.
“She is hitting the ball better than ever and winning against Świątek in the United Cup will give her enormous confidence to believe that she can finally make that big Grand Slam breakthrough.”
Alongside Pegula, 18-year-old Coco Gauff continued to show maturity and composure beyond her years.
Gauff reached a career-high number four in the standings in October and topped the doubles standings for the first time in August. She also made her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros, losing to a dominant and in-form Świątek.
Like Pegula, Gauff also started the year auspiciously after winning the third singles title of her career in Auckland, New Zealand.
“Coco has to be the best driver in the women’s game, along with Świątek, so as long as her body stays healthy, I still see her as a potential Slam winner,” Robson said.
“Combined with the fact that she won last week in Auckland, it will give her such a positive mindset heading into the tournament. If she is able to use the fast surface of the pitch in Melbourne with her serve, I could see her get a great result.
Madison Keys, meanwhile, was unbeaten in five United Cup games and recently made her return to the top 10 in the world.
But will these performances translate into success at the Australian Open? Besides Williams, who has won the year-opening Grand Slam seven times, Sofia Kenin is the other American to have triumphed in Melbourne in the past 20 years.
Since that title in 2020, Kenin has struggled with form and injury, falling well outside the top 100 in the rankings.
Other American challengers include Danielle Collins, last year’s Australian Open finalist, and 21-year-old former Grand Slam semi-finalist Amanda Anisimova.
“I think people are kind of happy with how this group is going, especially with Gauff and also Pegula in the mix,” tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg told CNN Sport. “I think people are pretty happy right now.”
But on the men’s side, Grand Slam success proved harder to come by. Not since Andy Roddick’s US Open title 20 years ago has an American won a major singles title, months after Andre Agassi claimed the last Grand Slam title of his career at the Australian Open.
Another American men’s champion feels long overdue, and of the current crop of players, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Sebastian Korda look the most likely to end the drought.
Fritz became the first American since Agassi in 2001 to win Indian Wells last year, as he also reached a maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon before losing to an ailing Rafael Nadal.
Tiafoe beat Nadal to reach the US Open semi-finals, and Korda, a former Australian Open junior champion, came within a point of beating Novak Djokovic at the Adelaide International on January 8. .
Korda, the son of two former tennis players and the brother of two professional golfers, won his first ATP Tour title two years ago at the age of 20 and nearly ended his unbeaten run. Djokovic in Australia, who now has 34 games.
“All three players really impressed me in the Australian Open pre-events,” Robson said.
“Korda was shockingly close to pulling off an upset against Djokovic in Adelaide. The margins are so small and such a tally shows you how close he is to the best in the game.
“Fritz and Tiafoe were equally impressive at the United Cup and with the hot and fast conditions in Melbourne they will be super dangerous.”
Djokovic’s previous nine Australian Open titles make him the favorite in Melbourne, although he has dealt with a hamstring in recent matches.
Top-seeded Nadal, meanwhile, has struggled since arriving in Australia after suffering back-to-back United Cup defeats.
The in-form American hopefuls are certainly underdogs to win the Australian Open, but recent results will make each of them quietly confident of producing their own American Dream Down Under.
“American players pushed each other and helped each other to believe they could compete at this level,” former player-turned-broadcaster John McEnroe said in a recent interview with Eurosport.
“If I had to choose one, I would probably choose Sebastian Korda; he is the youngest of this current group of Americans and the one with the most advantages right now.
“Frances Tiafoe has also made great improvements, Taylor Fritz is a phenomenally superior ball-striker, and is a legitimate top-10 player and threat to make a deep run.”