The WTA in 2019—Are fans ready to embrace depth rather than dominance?

by: Steve Tignor | December 27, 2018

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The Biggest Questions for 2019: Who will finish No. 1 in the WTA?

 

When it comes to the future of the WTA, the most-frequently-asked question hasn’t changed in about a decade: What’s going to happen when Serena Williams retires?

For much of that decade, the most frequent answers have also remained the same. They’ve gone roughly like this: Without a new marquee name to take Serena’s place, the women’s tour will struggle to stay in the same league, attention-wise, as the men’s tour. Without an American as its standard-bearer, the WTA will fade from TV screens in the U.S. Without a dominant player at the top of the rankings, the women’s game will descend into “chaos”—i.e., random results from flash-in-the-pan players at big events.

Chaos was the word we heard during those periods when Serena wasn’t in total control of the sport. When players like Marion Bartoli and Flavia Pennetta were coming out of nowhere to win Slams, and then promptly retiring. When players who had never won a major, like Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, were taking over the top ranking and inspiring that dreaded, discrediting phrase, “Slamless No. 1.” This was the downside of Serena’s excellence, her 23 Grand Slam titles and two decades of soaking up the spotlight: anyone who came after her was bound to seem like a step or three down in terms of skill and star power.

Knowing that history, you might have thought the last 18 months would have led to pure chaos. In the spring of 2017, after winning her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, Serena announced that she was pregnant and took the rest of the season off. If this was going to be her final act—winning a Slam while carrying a baby—it was a fittingly extraordinary one. Serena’s absence left a power vacuum at the top of the tour, one that no one was able to fill.

In 2017, four different players—Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, and Halep—tossed the No. 1 ranking back and forth like a hot potato. Following that year’s Australian Open, the next seven Grand Slam tournaments produced seven different champions—Jelena Ostapenko, Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Wozniacki, Halep, Kerber and Naomi Osaka. As for Serena, she ended her 2018 season by melting down against Osaka in the US Open final, while three of the WTA’s other stars, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams, failed to get their seasons off the ground. Was the long-feared WTA future finally here? Was anarchy at hand?

Surprisingly, that wasn’t the story that most tennis fans, pundits and players told themselves about 2018. Instead of “chaos,” this round of extended unpredictability inspired much more positive descriptions. We heard about how the WTA was filled with “great stories” and “fresh personalities.” Instead of producing results that felt random, the lack of a dominant star revealed the under-appreciated depth and diversity on tour. And through those stories and personalities, the whole became greater than the sum of its parts.

We’ve had eras where there have been great rivalries, and eras where there has been a dominant player, and it’s kind of refreshing to see this era where everybody is fighting for the No. 1 spot,” said Chris Evert, whose rivalry with Martina Navratilova sustained the women’s game through the late-1970s and early-1980s.

“I like it,” Evert continued. “I like the way it is now, because I think the women are getting better and better with the competition now, when they’re fighting each other. So I’m quite excited and quite intrigued, just like a fan.”

Evert’s fellow Hall-of-Famer Lindsay Davenport stressed and praised the stylistic variety in today’s WTA Top 10, and the determination by this era’s players to round out their games.

“I feel there is a really nice mix right now of offensive players, but also defensive players,” Davenport said. “It’s been great to see the defensive players the last couple of years add weapons, as well. And the biggest improvement I saw this year was Osaka becoming more of a defensive player when needed.”

It’s hard to disagree with Evert and Davenport. The WTA story over the past 12 months was a good one by virtually any measure. There were emotional, long-awaited breakthroughs from Wozniacki and Halep, each of whom won her first major title after years of close calls and near misses. There was the equally emotional return of Petra Kvitova to top form, a year after she was attacked in her home. There were the emergences of Daria Kasatkina and Aryna Sabalenka, two athletic 20-year-olds of contrasting sizes and strengths—where Kasatkina thrilled with touch and finesse, Sabalenka did the same with power and precision. There was the mid-career makeover that 26-year-old Kiki Bertens gave herself, which launched her into the Top 10 for the first time.

Most famously, there was the meteoric rise of another 20-year-old, Osaka, who coolly stared down Serena and 23,000 baying fans to win her first Grand Slam title at the US Open. Finally, there was Serena herself, who pulled off her own meteoric comeback; less than a year after having her first child, she reached two major finals.

I think it was a genuinely engrossing women’s season,” says Christopher Clarey, who has been writing about the WTA for the New York Times for nearly three decades. “It’s a cycle sport, tennis. Any cycle that goes on too long will lose us, but this wide-open cycle is still humming.

“A big part of its charm is the multi-generational effect. Right now you have three generations bouncing off each other, with the outcomes so uncertain.”

For Courtney Nguyen, who writes the WTA Insider column for the tour’s website, the past 12 months felt less like a post-Serena transitional phase, and more like the culmination of a new era that has been developing for a few years now.

“From the word ‘go,’ 2018 built and sustained momentum,” Nguyen says. “Kerber’s resurgence, Wozniacki finally getting over the line, Halep proving she’s more than what we thought she was, and then the continued rise of the younger set. It speaks volumes that Serena, Sharapova, Venus and Azarenka were effectively MIA and no one really noticed.”

Women’s tennis has always had its share of stories and personalities, its leading players and supporting casts, its epic matches and equally epic meltdowns. Why is the perception of the tour so much more positive right now? Why are we praising the WTA’s depth instead of criticizing it for its chaos?

One explanation may be the political moment we’re living in. With the Donald Trump presidency in the U.S. has come a feminist pushback that has affected how we think about and talk about female athletes. There may be less tolerance now for critiques of the WTA that can be construed as sexist.

“Women’s sports appear to be gathering momentum,” says Clarey, who also covers soccer for the Times. “Women’s tennis was, for me, more compelling than men’s tennis this year, and I think next year’s [women’s soccer] World Cup will draw more attention than ever.”

What remains to be seen is whether fans will come to wish for a little old-fashioned dominance to go with the WTA’s depth. Serena could still provide that in the short term, but she’ll turn 38 in September. In the past, the women’s tour has always produced either a new, all-powerful champion, or a top-level rivalry, to replace the outgoing one: Margaret Court and Billie Jean King led to Evert and Navratilova, who led to Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, who led to the Williams sisters. At the moment, no one looks ready to grab the baton from Serena. It may be time to accept that no one will.

For decades, the sport was ruled by just a few countries, most prominently the U.S. and Australia. Since the turn of the century, though, tennis has spread ever farther and wider around the globe. Of the Top 13 in the 2018 year-end WTA rankings, 12 hailed from different nations. The U.S. began 2019 with 11 women in the Top 100, but has produced only one new Grand Slam champion—Stephens—since 2000. The biggest success story of 2018, Osaka’s, was a fittingly global one: her mother is Japanese, her father is Haitian, and she grew up in Florida.

For all of its diversity, though, the WTA offered something more old-fashioned, and more important, for tennis fans in 2018: success. It was a season that was defined not by heartbreaking defeats or failures of nerve; it was defined instead by players rising to the occasion and showing courage under pressure, often in places where they hadn’t always shown it before. Wozniacki and Halep went from Slamless No. 1s to Slam-winning No. 1s; Kvitova put life-threatening adversity behind her; Kerber proved she wasn’t a one-season wonder; and Osaka made us all wonder if she has ice in her veins.

If that’s what WTA life is going to be like after Serena retires, we can stop worrying about its future.


In 2019, the ATP, WTA—and so much more—are on Tennis Channel Plus:

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