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The battle for No. 1 & more: Four WTA takeaways from the Wimbledon fortnight
Plus: the latest in a line of Czech champions, and the pressures that come when players play for something bigger than themselves.
Published Jul 17, 2023
WATCH: Marketa Vondrousova joins the Tennis Channel desk after her Wimbledon triumph.
As you’d expect from tennis’ most prestigious tournament, much that happened over the last two weeks at Wimbledon has added considerable spice to what’s become an intriguing year on the Hologic WTA Tour. With the US Open just over month away, here are four big picture lessons and implications.
The battle for No. 1 is much tighter now
Last year at Wimbledon, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek was upset by Alize Cornet in the third round. But even in the wake of that defeat and Elina Rybakina’s surprising title run, Swiatek throughout 2022 remained the WTA's dominant force; the Pole’s reign at the top was validated by her having won six tournaments, including Roland Garros, by the time she arrived at the All England Club. By summer’s end, Swiatek’s US Open victory conclusively proved she was the year’s best player.
The 2023 WTA year is much more competitive. Following two tournament wins and a successful Roland Garros title defense, Swiatek lost in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. But the rankings race is so close that had Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka reached the Wimbledon final, she would have taken over the No. 1 ranking. Others such as Rybakina, Ons Jabeur, and, of course, newly-crowned Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, are in the thick of the conversation.
And so, it’s uncertain at this point to determine who will finish 2023 ranked No. 1. Much will be settled at the US Open, particularly if one of the year’s first three Grand Slam winners takes the title. But if a fourth earns victory in New York, the race will continue into autumn and not be concluded until the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China. Even that very location–the WTA, back in China–will be part of the story.
Bigger causes can be helpful
When it comes to solitude in sports, competing as a tennis player can be as lonely as it gets. Over the years, players have addressed the pressure created by occupying a milieu where everyone is a potential opponent. So perhaps the best way to overcome such isolation is to find affinity with something bigger merely than oneself. During their glory years of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the globetrotting Australians looked out for each other and stayed focused on winning Davis Cup.
Now, consider the examples of Jabeur and Elina Svitolina. Jabeur has spoken frequently about the strength she gains from representing a nation and a continent.
“Hopefully this time I can go all the way and really make Tunisia and Africa proud,” she said during Wimbledon. In Svitolina’s case, the invasion of her homeland, as well as becoming a mother, has greatly helped her savor the chance to continue playing tennis.
“War made me stronger and also made me mentally stronger,” Svitolina said during Wimbledon. “But I think having a child, and war, made me a different person. I look at the things a bit differently.”
Tennis’ stylish superpower
The how, why, and even where of player development has long been a topic of intrigue. We Americans hear much about USTA efforts. For a time, eyes were cast on Russia. There have been examinations of Belgium and Canada. China has seen the ascent of many fine pros. And then there is that tennis United Nations known as the IMG Academy, where founder Nick Bollettieri once told me he had to keep track of times and international long-distance rates in dozens of countries on every continent.
But quietly, amid a world of repetition-based drills and concussive groundstrokes, a steady stream of stylishly eclectic players has emerged from a single East European nation: the Czech Republic.
Last month at Roland Garros, Karolina Muchova wowed the world with a palette of speeds, spins and volleys. Vondrousova this month took it one step further, joining such greats as Martina Navratilova and Petra Kvitova to become the third left-handed Czech woman to win Wimbledon–a feat made even more remarkable when you consider that only two other left-handed woman have taken the title (Ann Jones 1969, Angelique Kerber 2018).
“Yeah, I feel like you can just look up to them,” Vondrousova said during Wimbledon.
Like her compatriots, Vondrousova has a wide range of tools that add up to a playing style that’s also highly personal. But one shared thread among Czech tennis greats is an ability from a young age to see the court, grasp its entire dimensions, and subsequently learn how to strike the ball and construct points in a variety of ways.
Harken back also to Wimbledon champions Jana Novotna (’97), Jan Kodes (’73) and Jaroslav Drobny (’54) and you will see that Vondrousova fits into a long line of versatile stylists. Kodes wrote in his book, A Journey to Glory from Behind the Iron Curtain, “A spectator may not realize it, but the difference in execution of strokes on different surfaces is crucial! ... I realized that I had to adapt my entire game to grass if I wanted to succeed on it.”
Having gone 1-4 at Wimbledon prior to this year, Vondrousova no doubt made her share of adjustments, and as the tournament wore on, began to play like a grass court natural. One hopes players, parents, and instructors take heed of the Czech Republic’s studious and creative approach.
Grass is slower, but it's still grass
To be sure, the days of relentless attacking tennis on grass as conducted by Navratilova and Billie Jean King are likely gone for good. Groundstrokes are better. Grass plays slower. The bounce is higher. Rallies last longer.
That doesn’t mean, though, that contemporary tennis matches should be settled strictly from the baseline by groundstrokes. The Wimbledon runs of Vondrousova and Jabeur showed that it’s still quite possible to play with plenty of imagination and instill all sorts of doubt in the mind of an opponent.
Jabeur’s affinity for the drop shot has been well-chronicled. Vondrousova hit her share too. More significantly, each deployed the drop shot as a way to open up the court for drives, lobs, angles, volleys.
All-court tennis: mandatory at Wimbledon, arguably essential everywhere.