And we're back. Almost. After a quick break from the court, the players return next week for the start of a competitive Australian swing. 

With a 500-level event in Adelaide beginning on Jan. 3 and two 250 fields playing simultaneously in Melbourne, there will hardly be a lack of competition as soon as the clock strikes 2022.   

Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep are just a few of the top names that will see action in the season's first week.

With a new year comes fresh aspirations and goals. With so much going on, what should we be paying attention to?

Here are a handful of storylines to keep an eye on during this year's swing Down Under. 

The return of Osaka


For a player who had seemingly established herself as an unstoppable hardcourt force just nine months ago, defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka has been largely absent from the conversation lately. Since returning from a two-month break at the Tokyo Olympics, the former World No.1 has contested just three tournaments and seven matches, tallying four wins to three losses. She has not played since the US Open, and her ranking has slipped to No.13.

But even when Osaka was in action in August, there was a sense of awkwardness and studious avoidance when it came to discussing her results and prospects. Putting the protection of athletes' mental health front and center was a pioneering move that had an impact far beyond tennis, but finding appropriate ways of discussing it is an ongoing process.

Undoing the stigma around mental strength and mental weakness, much of which is founded on old, macho notions that the best athletes should simply shut up and toughen up, won't happen overnight.

In the meantime, Osaka is the only one of this past year's Australian Open semifinalists who will be in the 2022 draw. The four-time major champion will be the most accomplished player in the field (pending a Venus Williams wildcard) and has been posting training pictures on social media since November.

There's precedent for mental health breaks in tennis sparking a surge in form. World No.1 Ashleigh Barty's rapid ascent to the top of the game after her two-year hiatus, for example. While Osaka will also have significant match play rust to shake off, if the time she's taken away from the tennis treadmill has truly refreshed her, the sport will be all the better for it. -- Alex Macpherson

Barty ready to make an impact Down Under

Greatest Hits: Ashleigh Barty's Top Plays in 2021

With Ashleigh Barty accruing more than 100 consecutive weeks at the top of the WTA singles rankings and now halfway to the career Grand Slam, it will be interesting to see how well she wears the crown at the start of 2022, where she will be aiming for a major title on her home soil. The confidence from extending her stint at the top of the game into an unchallenged, commanding stretch might give Barty the edge as she eyes her first hardcourt Grand Slam title.

The last two Australian summers have been up and down for Barty. In 2020, Barty won the Adelaide title, but she fell early in Brisbane and was upset by eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the Australian Open semifinals, where she lost 7-6(6), 7-5 despite holding two set points in each set.

Last year, Barty came back from a nearly year-long hiatus to win the Yarra Valley Classic title in Melbourne. But her momentum dissipated with a stunning loss against Karolina Muchova in the Australian Open quarterfinals. That was followed by an opening-round loss in Adelaide.

Could 2022 be the year where Barty fully dominates at home? She certainly proved her mettle many times this past season. In the Wimbledon final, Barty won her second major over a game Karolina Pliskova by surviving the type of second-set lapse that had been the Aussie’s undoing in other matches at marquee events, including her 2020 Australian Open loss against Kenin.

Steely triumphs like that could be the panacea for any lingering butterflies Barty might feel as she looks to become the first Aussie woman to win the Australian Open title since 1978. Her self-belief after another strong year could propel her to her most cherished prize in front of adoring crowds. We will have to wait and see. -- Jason Juzwiak

Sabalenka ready to take next step


The way 2021 ended, there were cliffhanger questions littered all across the WTA landscape. Can Emma Raducanu build on her US Open success? Will Ashleigh Barty continue on uninterrupted as the No.1? What to expect from Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu? After winning the year-end title in Guadalajara, is Garbiñe Muguruza poised to dominate? When will Coco Gauff have her breakthrough moment?

But arguably more than anything else, the progress of Aryna Sabalenka will have a big impact on the upcoming season. Her evolution in 2021 was noticeable, and there is no reason she won't take the next steps in 2022. Australia, with loaded fields in Adelaide and Sydney, and the season’s first major in Melbourne should give us some critical clues as to where Sabalenka is headed.

To be honest, there’s not much room for improvement. About the only thing she didn’t do was win a major. That could, and perhaps should, happen this year. She came tantalizingly close in 2021. After playing in 14 majors and never advancing beyond the fourth round, she played herself into the semifinals at Wimbledon and the US Open. Overcoming her famously volatile emotions, she was solid and steady. With her appealing, forceful game, that’s enough to beat almost anybody.

After qualifying for the WTA Finals for the first time, she appeared to be exhausted from the effort that got her there. Sabalenka, who won nearly $3 million, produced a 45-18 record and won titles in Abu Dhabi and Madrid, fell in group play, losing her final match to Maria Sakkari.

“This season I was doing well,” she said in press afterward. “I was working a lot on myself, on everything. I improved a lot. I would say this week I didn’t play well at all. I was just trying to put the ball back anyhow.

“Yeah, hopefully in the next season I will improve myself even more and do even better.”

Sabalenka began the season ranked No.10, but climbing that final ladder is the most difficult thing to do in tennis. At year’s end, the 23-year-old from Belarus was ranked No.2. It’s easy to overlook the fact she is, after Iga Swiatek, the second-youngest player in the Top 10. -- Greg Garber

History says we're primed for a breakthrough run


Since Angelique Kerber's stunning run to her first major title at the 2016 Australian Open, even-numbered years have been kind to first-time winners. In 2018, Caroline Wozniacki finally broke through to win the biggest title of her career, and 2020 minted Sofia Kenin as America's new Slam champ. Will the pattern continue in 2022?

The list of candidates is long and since the start of the 2016 season, at least two first-time Slam champions has been crowned each season. As Greg wrote, No.2 Aryna Sabalenka seems primed for a major win after making the semifinals of her past two majors. Look at how the final months of the 2021 WTA season played out and you have to be intrigued by WTA Finals runner-up Anett Kontaveit, who finished the year with a white-hot surge, winning 29 of her last 33 hardcourt matches.

Consider Indian Wells champion Paula Badosa, who ran the gauntlet comprised of Dayana Yastremska, Coco Gauff, Barbora Krejcikova, Angelique Kerber, Ons Jabeur and Victoria Azarenka to win the last WTA 1000 of the season. There's No.5 Maria Sakkari, who led the tour in Top 10 wins in 2021, and No.10 Ons Jabeur, who alongside Kontaveit, led the tour in match-wins.

That might round out the candidates in the Top 10, but after Emma Raducanu's eye-opening US Open title, the realm of possibility seems endless. From veteran stalwarts like Elise Mertens and Elina Svitolina, to the teen phenoms of Coco Gauff, Leylah Fernandez and Clara Tauson, Melbourne feels as wide open as ever. -- Courtney Nguyen