If variety is the spice of life, then the WTA Tour is definitely doing things right.
Yet again the season is going to conclude without a repeat Grand Slam champion, just as has happened for the last four years. The last time that a woman won two majors in the same year was Angelique Kerber in 2016. Serena Williams had been doing it regularly before that, but nobody has been able to dominate the tour like the 23-time major winner quite yet.
That doesn't mean the talent isn't there though. Quite the opposite. The talent pool is arguably looking stronger than it has for years - and there's still the chance for Ashleigh Barty to firmly stamp her mark on the 2021 season.
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In the absence of multiple winners in the same season, Barty, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza have all won at least two majors since 2016. There have also been some surprise winners, such as Emma Raducanu’s remarkable win this year, Bianca Andreescu storming through the US Open as a 19-year-old, and Jeļena Ostapenko’s shock French Open success in 2017. And there are other first-time winners like Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin who should be competing for more Grand Slams in the very near future.
While the women's tour is sometimes denigrated for being too unpredictable, especially in comparison to the 'Big-Three' dominated ATP Tour, there is actually a consistency that has emerged at the top of the game, and a strength in depth that makes it extremely competitive. That is not to say that there are not more upsets than on the ATP Tour - there still are, and Osaka and Barty will probably be disappointed that they haven't managed to win multiple Grand Slams in a single season.
Osaka has won four Grand Slams but all have been in different years. In 2019 she was the defending champion at the US Open after winning in Australia earlier in the year, but lost to Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. Then at the following Australian Open lost in the third round before winning the US Open six months later. And this year it was a similar story again as she won in Melbourne and exited early in New York. After losing at the Australian Open in 2020, Osaka said she was still learning how to deal with the status of a champion.
I just feel tight playing here a little bit because of the defending thing. I feel like there are moments where I can handle them and then there are moments like this where I get overwhelmed and I don't really know what to do in the situation.
While Osaka’s preparation for this year’s US Open dented her chances of victory, Barty looked like one of the most upset-proof top seeds at a major in a while. She went into the tournament on the back of victory at the Western & Southern Open and won her opening two matches in straight sets. But she came unstuck in the third round against Shelby Rogers, who battled back from a double break down in the final set to win. It was no surprise to hear her coach Craig Tyzzer say last week that she is "physically and mentally exhausted" after spending the entire season on the road.
Maybe 2022 will be the year that Osaka or Barty win multiple majors, or maybe another player will rise to the challenge. The three that stand out are: world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka, world No 3 Karolina Pliskova and world No 8 Iga Swiatek.
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Sabalenka has had a strong summer, making her first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon and then following up with another run to the last four at the US Open. She was beaten in three sets on both occasions and said after losing to Leylah Fernandez in New York that the occasion had got to her a bit. “As far as you go in the draw, more expectation you have…Because of the expectations and all this pressure and everything, I was trying to maybe make her move, I was going for closer to the lines. The mistakes were like this sometimes in important moments. Maybe sometimes I have to go back and start from the simple game.”
If Sabalenka’s Grand Slam hopes are looking up, the same could probably be said for Pliskova. She has been a perennial under-achiever at majors considering she has been world No 1 and also spent most of the last five years in the top 10. But after previously only making two semi-finals in her career she reached her first final at Wimbledon and took Barty to three sets. If this is the peak of her career, aged 29, then she has the weapons to win at least one major.
Swiatek has already lifted a Grand Slam trophy after her shock run at the French Open in 2020, and she is the only woman to make the second week at all four majors this year. However, with just one quarter-final appearance in 2021 she is keen to improve.
I am proud. But the best kind of consistency is when you can win, like, five titles a year. So right now I'm looking at the results that Ash [Barty] has, comparing to that, I'm not, like, 100 per cent consistent…I'm like 70 per cent consistent.
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How can any of the top WTA players take the next step and dominate? Perhaps they can’t, perhaps the strength at the top of the game is too deep. Even Raducanu and Fernandez blazing trails in New York did not shock everyone because of the high standards set by the younger players. “I'm not surprised at all,” said Pliskova.
I think some of the young girls, they are playing really good tennis…I think the level is quite high no matter who is in the draw.
Sabalenka offered a similar assessment. “The young generation are working hard, doing their best, using everything they have, doing everything they have. It's kind of normal, I would say.”
A look at the rankings suggests the depth on the WTA Tour is getting stronger. The top 10 is packed with major winners and players close to making breakthroughs at majors, just outside the top 10 are multiple Slam champions Halep and Angelique Kerber, and not far behind are four of the most exciting young talents in tennis: Coco Gauff, Bianca Andreescu, Raducanu and Fernandez.
With the depth being so strong maybe it is unfair to judge dominance on Grand Slam titles alone, and maybe more respect should be given to Barty’s 2021 season. She has won two more titles (5) than any other player and has the best win percentage of anyone (0.840 per cent) by a good margin. She has also won a major at Wimbledon and may have got another in Paris if she wasn’t injured. With the consistency she has shown over the last few years, Barty seems as well-placed as anyone to lead women’s tennis. If she finishes the season by winning either Indian Wells or the season-ending WTA Finals (the two tournaments she is most expected to play, although there is some doubt over the latter) then that would take her to six titles for the year. Given the quality of those titles (one Grand Slam, two WTA 1000's, two WTA 500's so far) it would surely be the best overall season since Williams won three Grand Slams and two WTA 1000 tournaments in 2015. She would also be the first WTA player since Williams in 2014 to win more than five titles in a season.
Whether Barty wins multiple Slams or not in 2022, she would probably sign off for more of the same as this year.
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