Our writers identify potential breakout stars for the year ahead
Our writers identify potential breakout stars for the year ahead

Sport stars to follow: Which sportspeople will enjoy breakout years in 2022?

We prepare for the start of 2022 by identifying potential breakout talents across a wide range of sports, including a golfer ready to win and a horse racing trainer it pays to follow.


Zubayr Hamza

By Richard Mann

South Africa has a rich history of producing world-class batsmen and ZUBAYR HAMZA might yet prove the next cab off the rank.

Hamza had been one of the talking horses of South African cricket prior to making his Test debut against Pakistan in early 2019, and he immediately looked right at home on the big stage, compiling 41 in his first innings.

Things didn’t go to plan thereafter, despite flashes of his obvious potential against India and England, but he has gone away, worked on his game and continued to build on his strong domestic record.

Zubayr Hamza
Zubayr Hamza

An ODI half-century against the Netherlands in November rubber-stamped his return to the international fold, and he made a brilliant, unbeaten 125 for South Africa A in a four-day game against India A just a few weeks later.

Hamza’s return to the full Test team shouldn’t be too far away, possibly even against India in the next few weeks. If Hamza is forced to bide his time, he will be worth the wait and I suspect he will go under the radar when he does work his way back into the South Africa starting XI.

A compact player who is a sweet timer of the ball, Hamza has had issues when getting opened up by the moving ball in the past, though learning some harsh lessons early on his career should stand him in good stead and his recent form in domestic cricket would suggest he is much closer to the finished article now.


Harvey Elliott

By Joe Townsend

In a Premier League packed with young, emerging talent, it’s easy to forget the impact Liverpool’s teenage midfielder Harvey Elliott made in the early weeks of the season.

It may have only been two starts, against Burnley and Chelsea, but there was enough in each to get both Liverpool and England fans excited about what may lie ahead for the 18-year-old former Fulham man.

Harvey Elliott
Harvey Elliott

His transition from goal-scoring, creative Sky Bet Championship winger for Blackburn – where he spent the 2020/21 season on loan – to a number eight capable of holding his own for a Premier League title-chasing side, all via just one Jurgen Klopp pre-season, was nothing short of astounding.

Currently 10/1 to make England’s squad for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Elliott’s price is sure to tumble should he regain his place at the heart of the Liverpool midfield once fit again.

Let’s hope he can make a full recovery from the ankle injury he suffered at Leeds in early September and pick up where he left off.


Trainer - Grant Tuer

By John Ingles

Not many stables are able to maintain a 20% strike rate over the course of a Flat season. Those that equalled or bettered that mark in 2021 included champion trainer Charlie Appleby along with fellow Newmarket trainers William Haggas, Sir Michael Stoute, Saeed bin Suroor, Roger Varian and John & Thady Gosden, all of them, of course, well established among the country’s most successful yards.

Much further down the prize-money table – outside the top 60, in fact – was North Yorkshire trainer GRANT TUER but that only made his achievement of also hitting a one in five success rate all the more praiseworthy.

The stable’s top earner was four-year-old gelding Lion Tower whose most valuable success came in a 0-85 handicap at Musselburgh. As one who managed to keep a step ahead of the handicapper, Lion Tower was typical of the sort of horse that Tuer’s highly successful season was built upon. Lion Tower won four of his eight starts, sprinter Gunnerside, in the trainer’s own colours, won six out of ten, and Out of Breath completed a five-timer in June and July. With a Timeform rating of 97, Lion Tower was marginally the yard’s best horse, though was pushed close by fellow four-year-old Illusionist (96) who won sprint handicaps at Hamilton and York.

The horses named above were the main contributors to a much-improved seasonal total which easily surpassed the stable’s previous best annual score of 21 set in 2019. When Blazing Hot won at Wolverhampton a week before Christmas, as well as being the stable’s 49th success of the year, he also brought up a career total of 100 winners for his trainer. Tuer’s earliest successes had come when riding, as well as training, his own pointers, the most successful of whom was Son of Anshan who won four hunter chases for Tuer and finished third in the Fox Hunters’ at Aintree in 2002.

However, the current chapter of Tuer’s career, when returning from farming full-time to resume training again, began in 2016 when, on the retirement of his father Edwin, he took over the licence of the family’s Wiske House Farm Stables at Birkby not far from Catterick. An increased string, along with investment in the yard’s facilities, including an improved gallop, and some shrewd placing of his runners were behind Tuer’s eye-catching results in 2021 and further progress looks assured. One final thing to note – unlike those bigger yards with the best strike-rates, backing Tuer’s runners blind in 2021 would have resulted in a level-stakes profit.


Adrian Meronk

By Ben Coley

The search for Europe's next big talent is on after the Hojgaard twins and Viktor Hovland provided the support act to Jon Rahm's sensational 2021 season.

Depending on where exactly you want to look, options are plentiful: Vincent Norrman flying the Swedish flag on the Korn Ferry Tour, Matthias Schmid bidding to live up to his (generous) rookie of the year tag on the DP World Tour, Ludvig Aberg seeking to become the top-ranked men's amateur and the likes of Angel Hidalgo Portillo and England's Mitch Waite looking to make a mark on the Challenge Tour.

The remit here though is to nominate someone who can win followers money along the way and my interpretation of that is someone who hasn't yet won at top-tier level, but is capable of doing so in 2022. The vote therefore goes to ADRIAN MERONK.

The first Polish player to make it onto what was once the European Tour, Meronk was part of the 2020 rookie class whose progress was halted by the pandemic. Even so, he managed to bag three top-10s that year and, crucially, gain valuable experience in the heat of battle when settling for T2 behind Christiaan Bezuidenhout in South Africa.

Although he proved unable to take the next step up and win in 2021, Meronk did very little wrong when third in the British Masters and went on to bag another runner-up finish in the Italian Open, played at the 2023 Ryder Cup venue. Despite failing to birdie the par-five closing hole, his Sunday 66 was bettered by only one player in the field and confirmed that he's getting better all the time as he shared second with Tommy Fleetwood.

Ending the year with a string of good performances, this big-hitter looks set for a massive campaign and can go ahead and win his first title on the DP World Tour. It'll likely come away from the very biggest events and if he hasn't taken care of business by the time the Porsche European Open comes around, that would look an ideal fit given that he was in fact born in Germany, and the course is an absolute beast.

Whatever the case, Meronk was one of the best drivers on the circuit in 2021, and found a new level of consistency which saw him rank 13th in strokes-gained total, 16th in scoring average, and produce as many top-five finishes as all bar eight players. His progress has a nice, straightforward look to it, and a breakthrough beckons.


Jenson Brooksby

By Andy Schooler

2022 will be JENSON BROOKSBY’s first full campaign on the main ATP Tour and it promises to be an exciting one.

The 21-year-old started 2021 having not played in more than a year and ranked outside the world’s top 300 but after winning 49 of his 61 matches played across the season, he finished it at 56th in the ranking list.

It’s a figure which should shrink further in the next 12 months.

Brooksby has an awkward, quirky game style – look out for that double-handed sliced backhand – and his court coverage is a standout aspect of that game.

It has seen him compared to Andy Murray and Daniil Medvedev and already caused problems for plenty of good players – Brooksby beat six top-50 stars in 2021 and also took sets off top-five opponents Novak Djokovic and Alex Zverev.

Particularly encouraging, certainly in terms of potential ranking improvement, is the fact he made finals on all three surfaces (hard, clay and grass) in 2021, albeit some did come on the second-tier Challenger Tour.

The grass final came in his very first ATP Tour tournament, in Newport in July, and provided a springboard to further success in the second half of the year.

The summer hardcourt campaign brought a semi-final run in Washington, plus an appearance in the last 16 of the US Open where he led Djokovic 6-1 with a sparkling display before losing in four sets to the world number one.

Towards the end of the campaign, another semi-final showing was especially noteworthy.

So many of the last generation of male American tennis players have struggled outside their homeland so this was a great marker to lay down.

Yes, there will doubtless be plenty of pressure placed on Brooksby – it’s more than 18 years since an American man, namely Andy Roddick, won a Grand Slam singles title – but all the signs we’ve seen so far from the youngster are encouraging. At the US Open he spoke about feeling he could "compete with anybody".

We won’t find out in 2022 if Brooksby is to become the next Sampras, Agassi or even Roddick, but there’s every chance he does make a big impact on the men’s game with ATP titles and Grand Slam runs very much on the cards.


Jack Haig

By Joe Rindl

If you’re looking for hidden gems in the cycling world Australia seems to host a whole roster full of potential stars.

Climber Michael Storer had a monster 2021, winning two stages and the King of the Mountains jersey at the Vuelta a Espana, while Jai Hindley finished seventh in a stacked Tour of Poland last year, 12 months on from missing out on a maiden Giro d'Italia title by 39 seconds.

Both these Perth riders are about to enter their peaks and could easily have been my Star of 2022, but for guaranteed results, and team leadership, expect Queensland’s JACK HAIG to have a breakthrough year.

At 28, Haig is hardly unknown. In 2019 he finished fourth at Paris-Nice and seventh at Il Lombardia. It was his results in 2021 though that convinced me to upgrade the Southport man from potential outsider to surefire podium challenger.

Jack Haig
Jack Haig

He kicked off the year with top-10 finishes at the Tour de la Provence and Paris-Nice, before upping his game to finish fifth at the prestigious Criterium du Dauphine.

Bahrain Victorious selected him as their leader for the Tour de France. In last year’s nasty opening two stages he finished fourth and 10th, keeping up with the favourites until a crash on stage three saw him forced to retire with a shattered collarbone.

Injury switched his focus to the Vulta a Espana where he shined while former leader Mikel Lana faltered, finishing third overall ahead of the likes of Adam Yates, Egan Bernal and Sepp Kuss.

Haig’s consistency is his ultimate strength. He entered the top 10 of the general classification at the end of stage seven and stayed there until the finish.

He has confirmed he’ll be participating in next year’s tour where he’s priced up as a 66/1 outsider. When the top-10-finish markets open he’ll almost certainly be worth backing.


Dusan Vlahovic

By Joe Townsend

Serbia caused a major shock by coming from behind to beat Portugal in their final World Cup qualifier, forcing Cristiano Ronaldo’s side into a play-off scenario that means at least one of world champions Italy or the Portuguese will now miss out on Qatar.

On these shores at least, the attention tends to be focused on Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ajax’s former Southampton man Dusan Tadic when discussing Serbia’s forward line, and in fairness they were they were the goalscorers in that pivotal fixture.

Dusan Vlahovic
Dusan Vlahovic

But it is another Dusan, Vlahovic, who is arguably the best of the lot. The Fiorentina striker has been linked with a handful of Premier League teams after scoring 37 goals in a season and a half in Serie A.

Those 37 goals have come from chances equating to 28 expected goals (xG). At the moment, the sample size is a little too small to say for certain whether Vlahovic is a truly elite finisher in the consistent xG over-performance territory of a Harry Kane or prime Jamie Vardy, or simply benefitting from an unsustainable hot streak.

What feels more certain is that it is only a matter of time before the 21-year-old joins one of Europe’s top clubs. Expect him to have done so by the time Serbia look to make the knockout stage of a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation.


Ryan Searle

By Chris Hammer

Darts is one of few sports that has never been short of characters for the fans to fall in love with – whether that's down to their breathtaking standard of play, unusual throwing styles, vibrant personalities or on-stage personas – but there's not yet been a player quite like Ryan Searle.

This potential superstar from Somerset has enjoyed an eye-catching 2021, which saw him showcase his talents by reaching the climax of the televised Players Championship Finals, where he whipped the home crowd into a frenzy during an agonisingly marginal defeat to Peter Wright.

Searle's performance was so good that Peter Wright branded him "future of darts" during the trophy presentation and it's hard to argue with such a verdict given the way he has climbed up the rankings over the past couple of seasons.

Earlier in the year, 'Heavy Metal' had beaten Wright to claim his second Pro Tour title and he's also reached a further three floor finals this season so it's only a matter of time before he lands major honours – possibly in 2022.

It’s a remarkable story for a player with eyesight so bad – a condition called astigmatism that doesn’t even improve with glasses – he can hardly see the board and often needs the referee to tell him where the darts have landed.

The teetotaller is also known for having some of the heaviest darts in the game at 32g – around 10g more than the average – and they will continue to make a big impact in the world of darts, even if he can't see it.


Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis

By OddsCritic

The welterweight division may already have two bona fide P4P mainstays leading it right now, but there is a new kid on the block who could yet spoil that party.

While the boxing world waits and hopes to see Terence Crawford vs Errol Spence Jr for all the marbles, one Jaron ‘Boots’ Ennis may have other ideas.

The 24-year-old prospect from Philadelphia has been brought along quietly without a great deal of high-profile main event exposure, and he has built an impressive 28-0 resume with 26 wins inside distance.

Ennis has terrific potential, and if you don’t believe us, you might want to listen instead to one Floyd Mayweather Jr - one of the greatest ever to lace them up.

‘Money’ recently said: “I’ll come on record and say that kid Jaron Ennis, ‘Boots’, don’t sleep on him, helluva fighter”.

‘Boots’ has fast hands and power to match, a pretty exciting and potent mix which will aid his bid to reach the very top.

There is plenty to look forward to for boxing fans in 2022, and the continued progression of Ennis is absolutely one of them. It would be a major disappointment if he is not stepped up in class again to engage in really meaningful scraps before the year is out.

One note of caution concerns Jaron’s potential to be hit. He is available for opponents maybe a little too much at times. For now though, that just adds to the box-office potential. Get the popcorn ready and enjoy the ride…


Jockey - Hector Crouch

By John Ingles

Barring the Covid-hit season of 2020, HECTOR CROUCH’s number of winners has steadily increased each year since riding his first winners in 2014, and when Morani Kali won at Kempton in November, it took his year’s total to a new seasonal best of 64. Another pleasing aspect to Crouch’s stats in 2021 was his 16% strike rate, a marked improvement on previous seasons and indicative of him picking up better rides.

A graduate from pony racing, Crouch started out as an apprentice for Gary Moore and rode his first winner for the yard in June 2014 when Whinging Willie was successful in an apprentice race at Newbury. Moore supplied the majority of Crouch’s early winners and remains one of his main supporters, though Saeed bin Suroor was among other trainers to start using Crouch’s services as a 7lb claimer.

In the winter of 2015/16, Crouch widened his horizons by riding in Dubai, mainly for UAE champion trainer Sateesh Seemar, something the jockey described as ‘a massive learning curve’. Back in the UK, Crouch rode his first winners for Ralph Beckett in 2016 and for Clive Cox in 2017, two more yards which have been instrumental in Crouch’s success ever since, particularly in the latest season when they accounted for the majority of his winners between them.

A four-timer at Lingfield in July 2017 was an early highlight during Crouch’s apprentice days and on Boxing Day of the same year he had his first win in the Godolphin colours on Ocean of Love at Wolverhampton before riding out his claim shortly afterwards. It was Cox who provided Crouch’s first Group winner when Streamline won the Sirenia Stakes at Kempton in September 2019, while Crouch’s first ride in a classic came for bin Suroor on Military March who finished fourth in the 2000 Guineas in 2020.

More rides for Beckett in 2021 resulted in Crouch riding his first Royal Ascot winner when Surefire won the King George V Stakes, and a partnership with the same stable’s smart Victory Chime yielded three wins, including a Listed contest at Goodwood.


Ayaka Furue

By Matt Cooper

The message dropped just before Christmas: "Your mission, Matt, should you choose accept it, is to identify a potential breakout player in the women’s game in 2022, the remit is a non-household name." Damn it, I muttered, as the last two words doomed my first thought of Leona Maguire, whose stellar Solheim Cup debut disqualifies her.

That wonderful performance in Toledo was magnificent, but what bolsters the belief that there is more to come is that she alone in the women’s game appeared more than once in the top 20 best rounds of 2021 (adjusted by both field average and strength). Moreover, she did so not twice but three times.

I was also tempted by the six-time 2021 KLPGA winner Min Ji Park, but will she travel to the majors? Someone will know, but that someone is definitely not me, alas.

So to Japan’s AYAKA FURUE, a 21-year-old who celebrated her milestone birthday year by embarking on a staggering stretch of 21 consecutive starts, a Forrest Gump-style feat that left Sungjae Im resembling a couch-to-5k lummox. The run began in the first week of March on her home tour and she never missed a cut in her quest to earn qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. That honour proved beyond her, but the 21st week of action took her to the Evian Championship were she carded four sub-70 scores to land solo fourth and a month later she headed into the final round of the AIG Women’s Open just four blows back of the lead before finishing T20.

Unlikely major winners have been common in the women’s game in recent times and often they’ve hinted at their top-level potential in the year ahead of their breakthrough so Furue’s summer experiences are well worth adding to the notebook. As is the fact that her response to contending in the majors was to return home and chalk up three wins in four starts before finishing seventh in the LPGA Q Series.

The biggest impact on her year? “Playing the majors,” she said after confirming her graduation to the top table. “Yeah, it was a totally different atmosphere and there was great excitement. It made me want to play outside Japan.” Crucially, therefore, contending at the elite level not only thrilled her, it also triggered desire and improvement. It’s also impressive that in the last two years she’s had six leads heading into the final round and triumphed in five of them.

She admitted at the Q Series that Bermuda greens were a little new to her (yet not so baffling that she fluffed the opportunity). Nonetheless, her sweet spot might be non-grainy greens and tree-lined, traditional tests that resemble home. Currently an unknown in the world’s top 20, Furue can end 2022 very much a known.

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