PARTAB RAMCHAND | 30 OCTOBER, 2018
WTA: Keen Duel for Supremacy Likely in 2019
An eventful Women's Tennis Association season
To say that the just concluded WTA season has been eventful would be an understatement. For starters Serena Williams didn't win a Grand Slam singles event for the first time since 2011. And for the first time in years the focus was not on her but the other young challengers who have been hot on her heels for some time now. Four of these women won a Grand Slam each and a fifth emerged triumphant in the just concluded WTA finals in Singapore.
Of course a great champion like Serena can never really be out of the limelight. In the first place she made headlines for the wrong reasons by her unacceptable behavior during the US Open final. But she also made two Grand Slam finals which given her age and the fact that she was out of tennis for quite a while after giving birth to a baby girl was pretty commendable. During the year in fact she slipped well out of the top 100 before climbing back to her current ranking of No 15. The last has obviously hot been heard of Serena who at 37 still harbours ambitions of equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. At the moment she is just one short.
In her absence for much of the season at least half a dozen players, some young and others not so young made their presence felt in no uncertain terms to indicate that even if Serena comes back strongly next year she may not have it all her own way. There is an armada of talented,skilful and ambitious challengers eager to get out of the great lady’s shadow and establish their supremacy and having performed admirably in 2018 they sense their big breakthrough could well be next year.
On the basis of her being ranked No 1 this list has to be headed by Simona Halep. In fact it was for the second successive year that the 27-year-old Romanian finished top of the heap. Halep had a splendid record at Grand Slams finishing runner-up at the Australian Open and winning the French Open. Otherwise there was a mixture of impressive performances and a couple of bad defeats and an injury kept her out of the WTA finals. But she had done enough to finish the year on top.
Angelique Kerber the 30-year-old German should be another leading contender. Winner of the Australian Open and US Open in 2016 she finished that year as world No 1. After enduring some ordinary results in 2017 which saw her out of the top 20 Kerber bounced right back this year the highlight being winning Wimbledon defeating Serena in the final. She however couldn’t end the season strongly finishing third in the Red Group at Singapore but still ended the year at No 2.
Another winner of a Grand Slam title was Caroline Wozniacki. The 28-year-old Dane won the Australian Open and a consistent showing in other tournaments saw the former world No 1 finish the year ranked No 3. She entered the WTA finals as defending champion but with two losses and a victory she finished third in the White Group. But she remains one of the leading challengers for the top spot in 2019.
Perhaps the most talked about player during the year was Naomi Osaka. The 21- year-old Japanese was not exactly an unknown when the season started but the dramatic success she enjoyed saw her rise to No 5. The year also saw her claim her first Grand Slam title when she defeated Serena in the US Open final a match made infamous by the latter’s unseemly outbursts against the umpire. A calm and composed Osaka earned plaudits for not being affected by all this. She became the first Japanese tennis player to win a major and qualified for the WTA finals where she lost both her group matches and retired in the third. Despite this disappointing finish she rose to a career high ranking.
Besides these four players who won a Grand Slam each the other player to watch out for in 2019 could well be Elina Svitolina on the basis of winning the WTA finals. Svitolina has not won a Grand Slam and did not progress beyond the quarterfinals in a major this year but her consistent showing including successful title defences at Dubai and Rome saw her make the WTA finals. Here she was simply superb winning all her White Group matches. As the sixth seed she had a tough draw being drawn alongside defending champion Caroline and the two prominent Czech players Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova. But she won all three of her round robin matches to secure her place in the semifinals. Here she defeated Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands in three sets before rallying to defeat Sloane Stephens in the title clash 3-6, 6-2, 6-2. The biggest title of her career saw Svitolina finish the year as world No 4.
On the basis of her triumph at the US Open last year Sloane Stephens was always going to be a leading contender for the majors. But her best was the runner-up slot at the French Open which saw her rise to No 3 in July. She had a rather indifferent season thereafter but her strong finish when she finished runner-up in the WTA finals saw her finish the year at No 6. .
The two Czech players Kvitova and Pliskova might be slipping a bit from the high rankings they occupied in the past but they are still in the top eight and cannot be ruled out from causing upsets in 2019 or even regaining their earlier status. Kvitova a Wimbledon winner in 2011 and 2014 reached a career high ranking of No 2 in 2011 while Pliskova whose best Grand Slam result has been finalist at the US Open in 2016 was ranked world No 1 in 2017. It certainly is an open field and all this indicates a keen duel for supremacy next year.