With the WTA Finals approaching, let's look back at the 2018 season

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WATCH—Court Report on Simona Halep pulling out of WTA Finals: 

With the year-ending—or almost-ending—WTA Finals set to begin, this seems like the ideal moment to look back at the 10-month journey that brought the 2018 women’s season to its resting place in Singapore.

As with any tennis campaign, 2018 has lasted a long time, and spanned a mind-bogglingly wide variety of events. Does Caroline Wozniacki’s Australian Open win feel like it happened this past January, or six years ago? Did it really occur in the same season as Naomi Osaka’s victory over Serena Williams at the US Open?

What was different, and better, about the 2018 women’s season was the way it was perceived. In the past, when one player—i.e., Serena Williams—wasn’t dominating the tour, we inevitably heard that the WTA was “in a state of chaos,” while trolls everywhere worried about what would happen to the women’s game when Serena finally retired.

Well, in 2018, nobody dominated. Four different players—Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Osaka—won the four Slams. Four different players—Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Petra Kvitova, and Wozniacki—won the tour’s Premier Mandatory events, in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing. From Osaka to Aryna Sabalenka to Daria Kasatkina to Kiki Bertens to Mihaela Buzarnescu to Qiang Wang, many of the biggest success stories of 2018 involved newcomers and previously little-known players. At the same time, well-known names like Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, and Victoria Azarenka struggled.

Yet I never heard the word “chaos” used to describe the state of the WTA in 2018, at least not from any credible, narrative-creating sources. Instead, a new, more positive word in vogue: “personality.” Rather than leading to anarchy, the lack of a dominating star in 2018 helped reveal the wide variety of characters and talents that currently make up the women’s tour.

What changed in the popular perception of the WTA? How about the fact that this really was a good year for women’s tennis stories. Wozniacki and Halep made long-awaited breakthroughs. Kvitova bounced back into the Top 10 a year after suffering a violent attack. Serena bounced back into two Slam finals less than a year after having a baby. Osaka wowed the world with her US Open win. All of these triumphs felt right, not random.

So as the Top 8 women begin to tie a bow on 2018, I’ll highlight a few of the season’s most memorable performances. This WTA season was a good one in a lot of different ways.

Hot Shot-Makers: Aryna Sabalenka & Daria Kasatkina

One of them, Kasatkina, made her move over the first half of the season; the other, Sabalenka, made hers over the second half. Together the 21-year-old Russian and the 20-year-old Belarusian showed us that there are still many different, and equally riveting, ways to hit a ball and win a match.

At 5-foot-7, Kasatkina reached the final at Indian Wells, and the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon with spin, speed, guile, and finesse. At 6-feet, Sabalenka rocketed up to No. 11 in the rankings with power, precision, and fearlessness. Even their personalities are at opposing ends of the athletic spectrum—where Kasatkina is drolly fatalistic, Sabalenka is artlessly enthusiastic. We shouldn’t be surprised if these two opposites match wits and strokes in a Grand Slam final someday soon.

Welcome Return: Petra Kvitova

As far as her raw results went, it was a tale of two seasons for Kvitova. She won five WTA titles and returned to the Top 10, but she also failed to make it out of the third round at a major. As far as her, and our, emotions went, though, it was a year to celebrate Petra’s presence. After coming so close to never playing again, she competed with a new calmness, and a new appreciation for her life in tennis. And the fans appreciated her back. We realized again that there’s nothing quite like Kvitova in full roar—shot-wise and “Pjod!”-wise—and there never will be.

Two-Week Warrior: Angelique Kerber

There are moments during tennis seasons that feel like harbingers—Osaka’s win at Indian Wells, for instance. But there also moments in tennis seasons that feel self-contained, destined to last only for the two weeks in which they occur. Kerber’s first Wimbledon win, which came largely out of nowhere, and largely led to nowhere, seems to have been the latter. By the end of the year she was no longer working with the coach, Wim Fissette, who helped her reach those heights.

But two-week stories are part of unpredictable beauty of the game, too, and despite their ephemerality, they can be just as sweet as any other, more historically significant victory. Kerber’s Wimbledon win was about determined opportunism. When the other seeds were losing their matches during the first week, Kerber kept her head, saw her chance, and took it. For me, her tumble onto a sunny Centre Court after the last point of the final is the most lasting image of this season—there was pure joy and pure surprise in that fall.

Coolest Customer: Naomi Osaka

In 2018, there was the US Open women’s final, and there was everything else. Few modern matches have generated so much chatter, and divided humanity so thoroughly, as that New York nightmare. To me, there was blame to go around, between Patrick Mouratoglou for coaching, Serena for coming unglued, and Carlos Ramos for his itchy game-penalty trigger finger.

But when I think of that final, I don’t think of any of that. Instead, what comes to mind first is the sight of the 20-year-old Osaka ignoring it all—the disorder on the court and the hysteria in the stands—and stepping to the line at match point to fire a service winner. Funny, self-deprecating, disarmingly real, and now a Grand Slam champion: Osaka can’t get any cooler, can she?

Player of the Year: Simona Halep

Is it better to watch a tournament live or on TV? Which viewpoint gets you closer to the truth? With its commentary and statistical information, a television broadcast can be tough to beat. But there was nothing like being inside Court Philippe Chatrier for Halep’s long-delayed victory at Roland Garros this spring.

Inside the stadium, you could feel the weight of the moment on Halep’s racquet as she fell behind Sloane Stephens. After squandering a set and a break lead over Jelena Ostapenko in this same match a year earlier, and after losing another heartbreaker to Wozniacki in the Australian Open final, it seemed that a major title wasn’t in Halep’s destiny. But maybe that’s exactly what Halep needed to believe; once she told herself this match was “gone,” she couldn’t be stopped. Halep didn’t just rip balls, though, the way most players do when they’ve thrown in the mental towel. She played with more patience, with more stubborn determination, and it paid off.

When Stephens’ last shot found the net, Halep dropped her racquet and found her way to her coach, Darren Cahill, for a victory hug they may never have been sure was coming. Her destiny, it turned out, was to win a Slam, and to do it the hard way. In a year of good stories, Halep’s was the best.

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