On The Line in 2021: New year, new WTA year-end No. 1?

On The Line in 2021: New year, new WTA year-end No. 1?

Ashleigh Barty has finished the last two years at No. 1 on the WTA rankings, but could 2021 usher in a new year-end No. 1 on the women’s tour?

After a phenomenal 2019 and a strong start to 2020, Ashleigh Barty built a hefty lead at No. 1 on the WTA rankings, and under the current revised ranking system—where players can only add points and not drop any due to the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s been difficult for anyone to catch up to the Australian, even though she hasn’t played a tour-level match since the restart last summer.

But with the ranking system scheduled to start phasing back in March, which means old points will start falling off again, by the end of the year most players’ point totals will be predominantly made up of results from 2021—and the WTA rankings could look a lot different than they do now.

So, who could challenge Barty—who finished 2019 and 2020 at No. 1—for year-end No. 1 in 2021?

The Last Two No. 1s
When trying to predict players who could potentially wrestle No. 1 away from Barty this year, two names jump out—two names who aren’t just No. 2 and No. 3 on the WTA rankings right now, but the last two No. 1s before Barty, as well. Those two players are Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka.

Halep may not have come away with any majors in 2020, her best result being the semifinals of the Australian Open, but she’s still the reigning champion at Wimbledon—the one major that got cancelled last year. She also knows what it takes to play well throughout the whole year and finish at No. 1—before Barty in 2019 and 2020, Halep topped the year-end rankings in 2017 and 2018.

Osaka, meanwhile, was the last player before Barty to be No. 1 at all, spending 25 weeks at the top spot in 2019 until relinquishing it to the Australian after the US Open. The Japanese, who’s finished the last two seasons at No. 3, was the best player on tour during the abbreviated summer hard-court season last year, going on an 11-match winning streak that culminated with a second US Open title.

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The 2020 Player Of The Year
While Barty, Halep and Osaka each skipped at least one of the majors in 2020, Sofia Kenin played all three—and she ended up having her breakthrough year. After winning her first major at the Australian Open, she reached the fourth round at the US Open and the final of Roland Garros. Her results in 2020 were worth more than 3,900 ranking points, while none of the Top 3 amassed more than 2,900. Due to the revised ranking system, she finished 2020 at No. 4—but the American has proven she can play a lot and win a lot on any surface, so it’s only a matter of time before she keeps climbing up.

After such a big 2020, Kenin will be a much bigger target in 2021—but she’s been getting ready.

“Of course it’s a little bit different this year with a long pre-season,” she said in Abu Dhabi last week. “I definitely had to work a lot on my fitness. I feel like my pre-season helped me with that. Tennis-wise, I just tried to improve my game. I didn’t change anything or do anything too drastic—why change things if I’ve had a good run? I played some good tennis last year, so I’ve just kept everything simple.”

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Any Number Of Dark Horses…
While No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova are fully capable of topping the rankings—Svitolina has been as high as No. 3, and Pliskova is a former No. 1 already—it’s the next two names on the WTA rankings, No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 8 Bianca Andreescu, who many believe could ascend to the top at any time. Sabalenka has won all three WTA events since Roland Garros—Ostrava and Linz in the fall and Abu Dhabi last week—and is currently on a 15-match winning streak. Andreescu didn’t play in 2020, but she already has one major under her belt at the 2019 US Open, and isn’t scared of facing the big names at all, having won her first eight career meetings with Top 10 players.

There’s also the top two moms on tour, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, who’ve both been year-end No. 1 before—they’re currently hovering just outside the Top 10 at No. 11 and No. 13.

It could also be none of the players mentioned above—just as a No. 54-ranked Iga Swiatek won the last major played at Roland Garros, 2021’s year-end No. 1 could come from anywhere…