By Juan Ignacio Astaburuaga
During the week of July 25, a WTA 250 tournament on hard courts was played in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, to begin preparations for the North American swing prior to the U.S. Open. This event had one of the weakest entry lists of the year in terms of the average ranking of the players of the main draw, but there are some peculiarities that made Prague very special: seven Czechs were part of the main draw and three of the qualifying (showing the power of women’s tennis in that country, which is taking the place of Russia during the 2000s as the new great factory of players), and of the 32 players who competed, 10 were born in 2001 or later.
2001 → Anastasia Potapova (RUS), Wang Xinyu (CHN)
2002 → Sinja Kraus (AUT), Daria Snigur (UKR), Anastasia Zakharova (RUS)
2003 → Oksana Selekhmeteva (RUS)
2004 → Linda Nosková (CZE), Barbora Palicová (CZE), Dominika Šalková (CZE)
2005 → Lucie Havlíčková (CZE)
Of these young players, one reached the final, two the semifinals, three the quarterfinals, and five the second round. And actually, from those five, four got their first ever tour level win there, and all within less than three hours on July 26th: Selekhmeteva beat Cîrstea, Nosková beat Vikhlyantseva, Šalková beat In-Albon, and Havlíčková beat Palicová.
Bouzková ended up being the champion of this tournament. Remarkably, in the final, she hit a total of ZERO winners, something unprecedented in the recent history of the WTA. But the important thing for this story is which players she faced on her way to the title in the Czech capital.
1R → Kraus, 2002, 20 years old (6-2 7-62)
2R → Šalková, 2004, 18 years old (6-1 6-2)
QF → Selekhmeteva, 2003, 19 years old (6-3 6-0)
SF → Nosková, 2004, 17 years old (7-64 6-3)
F → Potapova, 2001, 21 years old (6-0 6-3)
Bouzková beat five players all born in the twenty-first century, all under the age of twenty-two! This is the first time this has happened, not only in the WTA, but in professional tennis in general — an obvious sign of the sudden change that is coming in the tour.
II: The Top 10
In recent years, the word that has probably been used most to describe the women’s tennis circuit is “inconsistency”. The feeling that top players are not reliable when it comes to having strong results and reaching the last rounds of big tournaments, especially Grand Slams, has become widespread in the audience of this sport (often in a tone that is not at all constructive, but contemptuous and dismissive). Since 2017, of the 22 Grand Slams played, ten — almost half — were won by players outside the Top 10, including four by players ranked not even in the top 50 (Ostapenko, Stephens, Świątek and Raducanu). When these numbers are compared to those of the ATP, where basically all the major titles have been shared between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the conclusions are not auspicious for the WTA.
During Roland-Garros this year, the debate grew even more after world number one Iga Świątek was the only one of the top ten seeds to make it to just the fourth round. All the other nine lost in one of their first three matches. At Wimbledon, the situation was not much better: only Ons Jabeur, the eventual finalist, and Paula Badosa reached the round of sixteen to represent the top 10 seeds.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the WTA playing best-of-three in majors, rather than best-of-five for the men, cuts down on their margin for error, resulting in more upsets. But the reason behind the frequent upsets is deeper than just that.
During the French Open I did some research to try to explain the disappointing performances from the top players. I indicated three other factors:
- The terrible design of the WTA calendar during the clay swing (the thirty-two women’s seeds played on average just three tournaments and seven matches on the surface prior to Roland Garros, which contrasts sharply with the five tournaments and twelve matches of the men).
- The distortion existing in the rankings due to the disappearance or absence of points from big tournaments because of event cancellation (only seven of the nine WTA 1000 were contested last year, the WTA Finals was suspended in 2020, and the WTA Elite Trophy has not been played since 2019 and probably will not be held this year either) and the sudden retirement of Ashleigh Barty, who was the world number one, reigning champion of two Grand Slams, one WTA 1000 and two WTA 500 tournaments when she retired.
- The generational shift.
III: The generational shift
These were the names of the Top 10 players in early November 2020, less than two years ago: Barty, Halep, Osaka, Kenin, Svitolina, Plíšková, Andreescu, Kvitová, Bertens and Serena. How many are today, just 21 months later, inside that same group? NONE. Two are retired. Another will retire in less than a month. Four are outside the Top 20. One is even outside the Top 400. Only Halep and Plíšková can say that they are still in the Top 20 today. (With her strong performance in Montreal, Halep will re-enter the top 10 shortly.) This exercise can be extended to several other players who also were a big part of the WTA for the best part of a decade, such as Azarenka or Kerber.
We got used to seeing these names for years at the top of the rankings, and while not all of them won too many Grand Slam titles (or even one), all were established players in the elite of women’s tennis.
And then the pandemic break came. Of the twelve names mentioned, since 2021, only Barty and Osaka have won a 1000-level title or something bigger. Does this mean that the rest were inconsistent or worse players? Not at all. Quite the opposite. But age comes for everyone, and many of the aforementioned players have already reached thirty years of age. The four months when the tour was suspended saw them lose all the competitive rhythm they had from ten years ago. And when they returned, they met at least thirty or forty players of an extremely even and remarkably elevated level (the depth of talent in the WTA is a reality), all of them younger and fitter. Just watch Leylah Fernandez outlast Kerber in the U.S. Open fourth round last year. In addition, the accumulated mental fatigue is greater for the older players.
After Miami 2022, Plíšková was the only one of these twelve players left in the Top 10. The other nine? Świątek, Krejčíková, Badosa, Sákkari, Sabalenka, Kontaveit, Collins, Muguruza and Jabeur, SEVEN of whom first entered this group after May 2021. In plain terms, in less than a single year, essentially the entire top 10 got replaced. The “old guard” said goodbye to the elite positions so suddenly, and to top it all off, the only player who was giving a firm sense of stability–Barty–retired with little warning. The top of the WTA tour was left to seven players inexperienced in being one of the best in the world.
Obviously, the transition was not going to be easy for this group. Normally, when entering the Top 10, one finds five or six experienced women who have been there for years. But in this case, all eyes and demands for great results fell on players who were just getting their best historical positions. Do you think that if Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer had retired in 2017, Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and company would have had much time to consolidate themselves before the masses started to demand that they win big titles, as people do for the WTA? Not at all. Having a firm star at the top gives a sense of security and tranquility to those who lie slightly lower in the rankings, as it does not immediately put them in the eye of public scrutiny and lets them continue on a slow but upward path, without great responsibilities.
IV: The future of the WTA
Apart from Iga Świątek and Emma Raducanu, who are both around the age of twenty, the top 10 has an average age of twenty-six. There is still an entire generation of players under them waiting and preparing for their opportunity. And I am convinced that they will not miss it. The women born in 2000 could not be more promising.
I already mentioned ten, and they were only those who competed in Prague, who also have a relatively low ranking in general. To those can be added:
- Those who have been on the tour for years, which has made us lose perspective on their achievements → Świątek, Gauff, Anisimova, Andreescu…
- Recent breakout stars → Raducanu, Fernandez, Zheng, Tauson, Osorio, Parry…
- A group momentarily of second category, but that in no way can be discarded for the future → Potapova, Li, Gracheva, Juvan, Kostyuk, Wang Xinyu, Wang Xiyu…
- The upcoming young prodigies → Erika and Mirra Andreeva, Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtová, Jiménez Kasintseva, Bejlek, Shnaider, Eala, Marčinko, Bartůňková…
We are in a transition process that under normal circumstances would take five or six years to be completed, but the pandemic has accelerated it. An entire generation of female players saw their places in the ultimate elite of women’s tennis upended in a moment. The puzzle that the WTA had managed to put together and consolidate for years was completely dismantled in just a few months. And some of the pieces that, almost by obligation, came to replace them, barely had time to adapt to their new positions. Here we must be a little patient. The pieces of that puzzle will be consolidated little by little, and those that arrive in the meantime will be enriching additions. The depth of talent in the WTA is undeniable. I hope the organization and its fans are aware of the tremendous opportunity they have to promote these new names and to grow this sport once and for all as it deserves, instead of waiting for generational stars to appear as if by magic.