In the second round of Roland Garros in 2011, 17-year-old Caroline Garcia had Maria Sharapova on the ropes, leading 6-3, 4-1. Although she could not put the then three-time Major-winner away, Garcia caught the eye. Sharapova thought she was “on her way up, definitely”. Andy Murray was even more impressed. “The girl Sharapova is playing is going to be No. 1 one day. Caroline Garcia, what a player, you heard it here first,” he tweeted.
That prediction is yet to be realised — the 29-year-old from Lyon has struggled to live up to the lofty expectations. But in 2022, Garcia clawed her way out of a career slump and showed just why she was once so highly rated.
She scored the biggest victory of her career to claim the season-ending WTA Finals last month, only the second French player to win the title after Amelie Mauresmo in 2005. “It’s definitely a lot of giant happiness,” said Garcia, the last woman standing in an elite field that featured the season’s top eight players.
She had also advanced to the last four of a Grand Slam singles event for the first time in her career at the US Open earlier in the year. “My head is buzzing, I can’t describe how I feel,” she said after beating American prodigy Coco Gauff to make the semifinals.
The long road back
Add her doubles triumph with Kristina Mladenovic at Roland Garros — her second Grand Slam trophy, having won the same event in 2016 with Mladenovic — and you can see why she described 2022 as the best season of her life. The year marked the culmination of a long road back for Garcia, who had not collected a singles title since 2019.
Having started 2022 at No. 74 and then slipping to No. 79 in May, when she made a return from a foot injury, she ended the season by equalling her career-best ranking of World No. 4. For the second time in her career, she won more than 40 singles matches in a year, as she pocketed four singles titles across all three surfaces: hard (Cincinnati, Finals), grass (Bad Homburg) and clay (Warsaw).
She was especially good between mid-June and mid-September. She won 31 of her 36 matches, which gave her three of her four titles of the season. Over the year, she notched up eight top-10 victories, including a tough three-set conquest of No. 1 Iga Swiatek in Poland. The other Major winners she found a way past in 2022 were Petra Kvitova, Emma Raducanu, Bianca Andreescu (twice) and Simona Halep. She was also credited with a walkover against Elena Rybakina.
Clarity of thought and a renewed trust in an attacking style have lifted Garcia back to the top. She said she experienced a critical epiphany at Bad Homburg in June, where she was down a set to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the opening round and said to herself, “You have to go for it.”
“You miss, you miss, but you have to do something. I was practising to be aggressive, to move forward, but I had some issues doing it in matches, and that’s where it changed, really, in the second set of that first round. I went for it. I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I believed.”
High risk, high reward
Garcia has the tools to implement an aggressive style and keep the points short. A powerful serve — she uses her athletic 5’10” frame to excellent effect — and expertise at the net, developed in doubles, allow her to step into the court whenever an opening presents itself.
“When I arrived on tour, I was definitely playing like that,” Garcia said. “My game style is to definitely go on the shorter rallies, so try to put pressure on the serve and the return. That’s the way I learned to play tennis. Tennis played forward is what I like.”
But a high-risk-high-reward approach demands fearlessness and an acceptance of errors, something she used to have trouble with. “Sometimes I did doubt it, because it was not always working,” she said. “And then I did it kind of half and half, and it was not working anymore.”
The foot injury earlier in the year liberated her, helping her achieve the fearlessness required. “My foot injury made me realise how much I wanted to come back and, above all, play my real game, the one I like to watch: offensive tennis,” Garcia wrote on social media after her WTA Finals triumph. “I love going to the net, hitting winners, drop volleys, slamming aces, to be inside the courts on the return. This injury allowed me to play more liberated. I learned to let go.”
Garcia’s coach, Bertrand Perret, also helped her make peace with errors. “She’s such a perfectionist girl,” he told L’Equipe. “It was a blast to work with her, but she’s maybe even too perfectionist. She didn’t accept making mistakes. With her risky game, if you don’t accept making mistakes, you get frustrated. Caroline needed to accept making mistakes.”
In perhaps the only real low of the season for Garcia, Perret quit her coaching team ahead of the Finals. Garcia said Perret’s departure came as a surprise but didn’t provide any details. At the Finals, she worked with Argentine Juan Pablo Guzman, with whom she had collaborated previously. It bodes well that she put together such a strong performance in the season finale, but the effect of Perret’s exit, if any, will only be known over the next year.
A singles Grand Slam title, the No. 1 ranking and a medal in her home Olympics in 2024 are on her wishlist. There is no doubt that Garcia’s best version — a disruptive, attacking style, backed up by a warrior’s mindset, which was evident in her epic win over Daria Kasatkina in the Finals — can beat anybody, on any surface, on any stage. But it remains to be seen whether she can continue to call upon it as consistently as she did this year.
Although determined to stay in the moment and enjoy her success, Garcia will hope 2022 is the start of something even bigger.