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2022 tennis wish list is clearer after Australian Open

Ashleigh Barty won the 2022 Australian Open in convincing fashion. The Australian superstar — that’s what she clearly is at this point — didn’t lose any of the 14 sets she played in Melbourne Park. She is now, without dispute, the best women’s tennis player in the world, having won two of the last three majors and carrying her form to the biggest tournaments on the planet.

As we leave Australia and look at the broad, vast landscape of the 2022 tennis season, the natural question becomes: Who is in the best position to challenge Barty?

Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Barty in last year’s Madrid final and reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2021, is a perfectly reasonable choice. She and Barty met in a number of late-tournament matches a year ago. That scenario could certainly unfold again this season.

Barbora Krejcikova reached the Australian Open quarterfinals and came one win short of meeting Barty in the semifinals. Krejcikova delivered a solid if not spectacular result in the year’s first major, building on her impressive 2021 campaign and giving indications that she is here to stay. It’s not a guarantee, but the needle certainly moved in the right direction for the Czech, who won the women’s doubles titles in Melbourne and reaffirmed her doubles prowess.

If there’s an athlete unlikely to join Barty on the big stage at 2022 major tournaments, it’s Naomi Osaka. It seemed very probable that the two would finally meet at a major as fellow major champions. Barty and Osaka needed to win just three matches apiece to set up a rendezvous in the Round of 16, but Osaka was taken out by Amanda Anisimova. The Barty-Osaka dream matchup remains elusive, and if they don’t meet in Indian Wells or in Miami, they probably won’t meet on clay or grass.

One could come up with several valid answers to this larger question of who will emerge to challenge Ash Barty in 2022, but after the Australian Open, the most intriguing possibility is Iga Swiatek.

The Polish sensation reached her first major semifinal at a non-clay (non-Roland Garros) event. She wasn’t brilliant so much as she was tenacious. She won matches she might not have pulled out of the fire last year. Her competitive chops improved, and she sent a message to herself — even more than the locker room — that her 2021 season, a learning process and an expectedly bumpy ride through the hard knocks of pro tennis, has paid dividends. It has made her a better, tougher, more resourceful player who can persevere when the seas get choppy.

If Barty-Osaka at a major was the dream for a women’s tennis showcase in 2021, Barty-Swiatek at Roland Garros or Wimbledon is a shining hope for the coming spring and summer. Moreover, Swiatek’s points pickup as a result of her semifinal run — she is now solidly in the top 10 — increases the odds that by the time of the French Open draw, Swiatek (with good clay results in Madrid and Rome) will be in the top four, meaning she wouldn’t play Barty until the semifinals if they do in fact meet.

Yes, women’s tennis remains compelling, interesting, and in possession of high quality. Yet, we’re all looking for that magnet matchup, that showcase encounter, which takes the sport to another level the way past clashes from previous decades did.

2021 was all about a Barty-Osaka hope which never materialized. 2022? Give me Barty-Swiatek in Paris or at SW19, and let’s see the fireworks explode.

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