Editor’s note: This week, we will unveil our top moments from the 2022 season. Here’s a look at the categories:
- Monday: Top match
- Tuesday: Biggest upset
- Wednesday: Top rivalry
- Thursday: Most unexpected champion
- Friday: Best celebration
Early in 2022, we took a stab at the rivalries we wanted to see. First on that list was Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka. Turns out they played only once this past season, but it was a big one. In March, Swiatek, who was already guaranteed the No.1 spot in the rankings for the first time, handled Osaka handily in the Miami Open final.
Perhaps this rivalry will emerge in 2023, but for now, here are our most notable one-on-one battles that did materialize:
Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka
As I wrote on Monday in celebration of Krejcikova's dramatic win in the Ostrava final, Swiatek's near-untouchable level should force the rest of the field to level up their games. That's precisely what happened for Sabalenka this year. After failing to grab a set off the Pole in their first three matches of 2022 - in the Doha quarterfinals, Stuttgart final, and Rome semifinals - Sabalenka made progress at the US Open, taking Swiatek to a third set and leading by a break twice in that final set before capitulating to Swiatek's unrelenting defense, losing 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinals.
In their final match of the year, at the WTA Finals, Sabalenka learned her lesson. Instead of trying to hit through Swiatek, Sabalenka played more patient, disciplined tennis to win 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 to make the biggest final of her career. The win closed the gap on their head-to-head 4-2. But more importantly, Sabalenka unlocked a smarter way to play her power tennis a lesson that will make her a better player in the future.
But this isn't just a rivalry that benefits Sabalenka. Swiatek came into 2022 carrying some level of insecurity against big-hitting power players. Her win over Sabalenka in Doha, which saw her hold her position on the baseline and trade power for power en route to an impressive 6-2, 6-3 win was the spark that kicked off her 37-match win streak. It banished her demons and proved that the power game coach Tomasz Wiktorowski encouraged was doable. The rest, as they say, is history. -- Courtney Nguyen
Belinda Bencic and Veronika Kudermetova
These two 1997-born peers have been squaring off since their junior days. Over the past decade, their rivalry has swung back and forth, and quietly developed into an unpredictable and closely contested series which almost always goes down to the wire. Bencic had the early edge, winning all three of their junior meetings, but Kudermetova responded by winning three of their first four pro encounters.
Right now, it's advantage Bencic again. The pair clashed three times in 2022, and the Swiss was victorious twice. First, Bencic came from a break down in the third set to take the highest-quality encounter 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(5) in the St. Petersburg first round. They then exchanged wins on grass, Kudermetova triumphing 6-4, 6-2 in the 's-Hertogenbosch quarterfinals but Bencic getting an immediate 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 revenge at the same stage of Berlin the following week. Bencic now leads the pro head-to-head 5-4. -- Alex Macpherson
Never count @KanepiKaia out 🙅♀️— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 24, 2022
At 36 years of age, world No.115 upsets world No.2 Aryna Sabalenka 5-7 6-2 7-6 to reach the #AusOpen quarterfinals for the very first time.#AO2022 pic.twitter.com/358aIfkf1R
Aryna Sabalenka and Kaia Kanepi
Even though they only played twice in 2022, Sabalenka and Kanepi provided some of the most gripping drama at the Grand Slams. When these two players face off, the only predictable thing is that their matching go-for-broke power will lead to unpredictability from moment to moment.
In the Australian Open Round of 16, their mercurial match ended with fireworks -- after earlier squandering four match points, Kanepi briefly celebrated victory at 9-7 in the match-tiebreak, only to quickly realize that she needed one more point. Nevertheless, Kanepi eked out a 5-7, 6-2, 7-6[10-7] win and earned her ninth career win over a Top 10 player at a Grand Slam.
Given Kanepi’s custom of major upsets, many pundits thought she might upset Sabalenka again in the US Open second round. But in that match, Sabalenka blasted her way back from 6-2, 5-1 and two match points down, gritting out a 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 victory.
The comeback probably rejuvenated Sabalenka’s up-and-down season, as she returned to the US Open semifinals and clawed her way to another Top 5 finish from there. -- Jason Juzwiak