In recent years we’ve witnessed a relatively even distribution of power in women’s tennis. Both at the Grand Slam level and in the WTA Tour, balance has been the constant trend over the past few seasons. It is this balance and unpredictability that made women’s tennis as exciting and surprising as ever before in 2021.
The absence of a real core group of dominant players is particularly obvious when we look at the recent winners in Major tournaments. In the Open Era, there have been many periods where a small group of players have been all-conquering. And it is these groups of players that have been remembered as the true legends of the sport.
In the 1970s for example, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert laid down the law, while in the next decade it was time for Martina Navratilova. Between the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, Steffi Graf entered the world tennis scene. Graf remains the last player to achieve the Grand Slam in a single year (1988). In that period, the German, together with Monica Seles, gave very little away.
The 2000s were a hunting ground for Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova and two Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. The trend dramatically changed after 2015 though, after Serena Williams went close to winning the Grand Slam. Ultimately, she lost in the US Open semi-finals to Roberta Vinci and after that, no player has come close to the feat since. The last player to win two Majors in the same year was Angelique Kerber in 2016.
In the 21st century, only four players ranked outside the top 50 in the WTA rankings have managed to win a Grand Slam title. But three of those upsets have come in the last five seasons (Sloane Stephens: US Open 2017, Iga Swiatek: Roland Garros 2020 and Emma Raducanu at Flushing Meadows this year). The other was Serena Williams at the Australian Open in 2007.
There’s a feeling that Ashleigh Barty may be the next to dominate the world scene, but the current power balance in women tennis is one of the main reasons the WTA circuit is so entertaining.
More specifically in 2021, one of the main stars has been Garbine Muguruza. Employing a new coach, Conchita Martínez, seems to have completely transformed her game. At 28 years old, she became the oldest winner at the WTA Finals since Serena Williams in 2014 (who is still the oldest to win this tournament in history).
This season, Muguruza won three tournaments (Dubai, Chicago 2 and the WTA Finals in Guadalajara). It’s the most she’s won in a single campaign, and the Spaniard finished the season ranked third in the WTA Rankings. Only in 2017 has she finished the year with a better ranking (#2 in that case).
She’s the first Spanish player to win three or more tournaments in a single season since Conchita Martínez won six in 1995 (Hilton Head, Amelia Island, Hamburg, Rome, San Diego and Manhattan Beach).
Key to Muguruza’s success in Guadalajara was her fearsome serve. She sent down 23 aces – her highest tally in a single WTA Tour tournament this year – and she also made the most successful net approaches (26) in the tournament. It’s been a year for demonstrating her new playing style.
Muguruza, a two-time slam champion (Roland Garros 2016 and Wimbledon 2017), won 38 hard-court matches in 2021. Only Anett Kontaveit (40) won more than that in 2021. Her versatility and adaptability to different surfaces, as well as coach Conchita’s mentorship, could help Muguruza compete with Barty in the hunt to be world number one next year.
The openness at the top of the circuit means there are ample chances for young rising stars to quickly make a run to the top.
Amongst these stars, Cori Gauff undoubtedly stands out. The American was the youngest player to win a tournament in 2021, doing so on the Parma clay. In that tournament, she unleashed her impressive backhand at will, hitting the most such winners in the tournament (43).
Gauff won her first WTA match at just 15 years old against Caty McNally in Miami in 2019. Since then, with her offensive weapons and a biting serve, she’s continued her steady ascent up the WTA rankings. She closed 2021 ranked #22.
Often compared to Venus Williams for her style of play, Gauff won her first WTA title in 2019 in Linz at just 15 years and six months, whilst Venus won her first trophy in Memphis in 1998 at almost 18. Time is on her side.
But the biggest story from 2021 was at the US Open where two teenagers met in the final for the first time since 1999, the year when Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam by beating Martina Hingis in the final. The winner this year, Emma Raducanu, became the youngest finalist in a Grand Slam tournament since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004. Her victory saw her become the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament in the Open Era, and the first British woman to win the US Open since Virginia Wade in 1968. She was also the first British woman to win a Grand Slam full stop since Wade at Wimbledon in 1977.
Amongst current top 50 players, no one rose higher in the WTA rankings this year than Emma Raducanu. She moved up 326 places in total, from #345 to #19.
In addition to Gauff and Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez is one to keep an eye on. At the US Open, she became the first woman to reach the final after each of her third round, fourth round, quarter-finals and semi-finals matches went to three sets, since Serena Williams in 1999.
Elsewhere, the Danish teen Clara Tauson won 17 WTA 250 competitions in 2021: more than any other player.
We wait to see which, if any, of these names becomes the dominant figure in the game, but one thing is for sure: the next generation of women’s tennis is in their hands.
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