Aryna Sabalenka leads the field at the 2023 WTA Finals Cancun, with all four of the year’s grand slam champions vying for the season-ending crown.
The 2023 WTA season wraps up in style, with eight of the world’s best players heading to Cancun for the year-end championships.
WTA Finals 2022 runner-up and current world No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka heads to Mexico as the top dog, with her run to the US Open final seeing her overtake Iga Swiatek at the top of the WTA rankings, as the Pole relinquished her grasp on the number one ranking for the first time since April 2022.
Swiatek could regain top spot, though Sabalenka has a sizeable advantage due to last year’s victory in Fort Worth.
Sabalenka and Swiatek are two of this year’s four grand slam winners who will be in the thick of the action in Cancun, with Coco Gauff — who defeated the world number one to claim the US Open title, her first major victory — and Marketa Vondrousova also featuring.
This year’s tournament is the 52nd edition of the WTA Finals, and the second taking place in Mexico, after the 2021 tournament was held in Guadalajara, with Garbine Muguruza triumphing.
Muguruza is nowhere to be seen this time around, with the former world number one having taken a hiatus from tennis – she is now out of the top 1,000.
Elena Rybakina, Jessica Pegula, Maria Sakkari, a late stand-in for the injured Karolina Muchova, and Ons Jabeur — on the back of suffering her third grand slam final defeat when she succumbed to Vondrousova at Wimbledon earlier this year — complete a quality lineup. It promises to be a thriller.
Sabalenka and Swiatek Tussle for Top Spot
There are 1,500 ranking points up for grabs alongside the WTA Finals trophy, though Swiatek will have to seriously outperform Sabalenka in order to reinstate herself as the top dog in women’s tennis.
Sabalenka could become the third player in the last 10 years to reach back-to-back finals at the WTA Finals after Elina Svitolina (2018 and 19) and Serena Williams (2013 and 2014). The Belarusian is 53-12 in 2023, with five of those 12 defeats coming against other competitors at the season-ending event, losing twice to Rybakina and once each to Jabeur, Gauff and Swiatek.
Not that Sabalenka’s place as top seed should make her the overwhelming favourite, given that since the current round-robin format was reintroduced in 2003, the top seed has failed to advance to the knockout stage six times — Lindsay Davenport in 2004, Caroline Wozniacki in 2011, Simona Halep in 2015 and 2017, Angelique Kerber in 2018 and Sabalenka herself in 2021.
As for the world number one’s main rival Swiatek, it’s not like she has had a poor season, despite the fact she heads into the WTA Finals having been knocked off her perch. With a third French Open title under her belt, the 22-year-old has the most top-10 wins in 2023 (eight), having also achieved the same feat with 15 victories over other top-10 players last year.
Swiatek, who has won five singles titles this season, could become just the fourth player since the turn of the century to lead back-to-back seasons for the most top-10 wins, after Justine Henin (2006-2007), Serena Williams (2013-2014) and Sakkari (2020-2021).
The Pole, who is the youngest player to take part in three successive WTA Finals since Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka did so between 2009 and 2011, has won 130 matches across the past two seasons — 67 in 2022 and 63 so far this year. She is aiming to become the the first player since Serena Williams in 2012 and 2013 (57 and 78 wins respectively) to triumph in over 130 matches across a two-year span.
Sabalenka and Swiatek, meanwhile, are the only two players featuring at this year’s finals with a positive record against the other competitors.
It’s set to be an enthralling finale to the season for these two superstars, who have met eight times, with Sabalenka winning on five occasions, including in the semi-finals in Texas last year and in their last meeting, which saw Sabalenka win the WTA 1000 title at the Madrid Open.
Gauff Gunning for More Glory
It is easy to forget that Gauff is still a teenager, given the fact she first broke onto the Tour in 2019 with that spellbinding run at Wimbledon.
A little over four years later, at the tender age of 19, the American lifted her first grand slam title, and she did so in style on home turf, coming from behind to defeat Sabalenka 2-6 6-3 6-2.
It felt like a seminal moment at Flushing Meadows. So many youngsters come and go on the WTA Tour, but it always felt a little different with Gauff, and now she has a major trophy to go with her astonishing potential.
The US Open brought up her sixth career title and the fourth of what has been a sensational 2023. She heads into the Finals as the world’s third-best player, and the target for 2024 will surely be the top of the rankings.
Gauff will be the fourth teenager to take part in successive WTA Finals in the 21st century, after Kim Clijsters, Jelena Doric and Maria Sharapova. The last American teen to take part in back-to-back WTA Finals tournaments was Lindsay Davenport back in 1994 and 1995.
She could become the youngest player to reach the semi-finals since Wozniacki did so in 2009, while Gauff — who has won 49 matches in 2023 — will no doubt be eyeing up being the youngest finalist since Sharapova in 2004.
No teenager has won 50+ matches in a single calendar year since Wozniacki in 2009 (68).
Gauff is flying the flag for the USA along with Pegula, whom she forms a fearsome doubles team with. They are the first American players to qualify for back-to-back editions of the WTA Finals since Serena and Venus Williams in 2008 and 2009.
Pegula has the most hard-court wins in 2023 (41). Since the start of 2000, only two players from the United States have won more matches on this surface in a single calendar year (Davenport in 2001 — 49, Serena Williams in 2013 — 47).
World number five Pegula loves playing in Mexico, too. She is undefeated in WTA main draws in the country, having won the Guadalajara title in 2022, winning 10 of 11 sets.
The Best of the Rest?
Muchova confirmed on Tuesday that she would have to miss the tournament due to a wrist injury, with Sakkari handed her third straight WTA Finals appearance in place of the Czech, who was the player with the joint-fewest WTA titles (one) won before her first qualification for the singles finals in the last 20 years. She was level with Nadia Petrova (2005), Eugenie Bouchard (2014) and Sakkari herself (2021) in that regard.
It was due to be the fourth time since 2003 that a country had a pair of debutants — in the form of Muchova and Vondrousova — in the WTA Finals, but the latter is now the Czech Republic’s only representative.
Vondrousova will only be the sixth left-handed player to play in the Singles WTA Finals this century, after Monica Seles, Patty Schnyder, Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Lucie Safarova. She is the left-handed player with the most wins in 2023 (38), and is the left-hander with the most WTA wins in a single season since Petra Kvitova (47) and Angelique Kerber (46), both in 2018.
Jabeur fell foul of Vondrousova in the Wimbledon final, as the Tunisian suffered yet more grand slam heartbreak — she has now lost three major finals. She could go some way to easing the pain by claiming what would be the biggest trophy of her career by succeeding next week.
The 29-year-old will be the third African player in the Open Era to feature in consecutive editions of the WTA Finals after Greer Stevens (1979-1980) and Amanda Coetzer (1993-2001).
Jabeur has won two titles this year to take her career tally to five. The world number seven is the only player to have reached a Tour-level final on each surface in 2023 (Charleston — clay; Wimbledon — grass; Ningbo — hard court), not including the United Cup.
That being said, of the eight players at this edition of the tournament, Jabeur is the one with the fewest main-draw wins this season (35). In the last seven campaigns, only Sabalenka (30 in 2022) and Sloan Stephens (31 in 2018) have qualified for the WTA Finals with fewer victories during the calendar year.
Rybakina, the remaining challenger, should certainly not be discounted. The Kazakh has proved herself a player for the big stage, given she has won four matches against the top-ranked player in the world at the time this season (three victories over Swiatek at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and in Rome, and one triumph against Sabalenka in Beijing). Only Tracy Austin, way back in 1979, has recorded more such wins in a single season since the WTA rankings were established in 1975.
Only Caroline Garcia (449) has struck more aces than Australian Open runner-up Rybakina (439) this season. Rybakina is aiming to become the first player to serve 450+ aces in a single campaign since Karolina Pliskova in 2019.
She is Kazakhstan’s first representative at the WTA Finals in the Open Era, and will be determined to do her nation proud.
• Martina Navratilova is the player with the most singles titles (eight) and finals (14) at the WTA Finals.
• Navratilova has the most singles appearances at the WTA Finals in the Open Era (21). Among the eight players who will feature this season, only Sabalenka and Swiatek have played in this event more than once (twice each).
• Mary Pierce is the only player to have reached more than one final at the WTA Finals without winning the title (1997 and 2005).
• Since the round-robin format was re-introduced in 2003, only three players advanced to the knockout stage after having lost the first two matches: Venus Williams in 2009 (finalist), Agnieszka Radwanska in 2015 (champion) and Dominika Cibulkova in 2016 (champion).
• Since 2003, all the players who won their first two round-robin matches have advanced to the semi-finals.