By Nick Carter
We have arrived at the finale of the women’s tennis season, the WTA Finals. Qualification for the event has been the main talking point after the US Open.
There’s been some discourse online about who people would like to see in the Finals. Most of this is around everyone wanting to see their favourite players there, but there’s also a feeling of the lineup being a little underwhelming.
Much of this is due to the dominance of Iga Świątek, who won two of the four majors this year and lifted the trophy at four of the eight WTA 1000 titles (she didn’t even compete in two of the others). The event is very much going to be defined by whether she finds her peak form, because if she does, she’ll likely sweep the field. The only player that has qualified who has managed to beat the Pole this year is Caroline Garcia. Otherwise, Świątek has beaten almost everyone else at least once, compiling a stunning 19-1 win/loss over the rest of the WTA Finals field. So, Świątek goes in as a heavy favourite to set up a perfect ending to what has been a magnificent season for her. While it’s a tribute to the fantastic year she has had, her convincing status as favourite does suck some of the drama out of the event.
Another reason that the field might seem lacklustre is that the winners of the other two majors in 2022 will not be present. Ash Barty retired soon after winning the Australian Open – her absence from the tour is still felt very strongly – and Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina would have scored enough points to have qualified weeks ago, but Wimbledon didn’t offer ranking points this year. Rybakina hasn’t consistently gone deep enough in other events to achieve the necessary point total to qualify for the 2022 event.
Even setting aside Barty and Rybakina, there’s a sense that the biggest names are missing from the WTA Finals. Simona Halep could be in the star category of the participants. Her past results have elevated her ranking following time off for nose surgery, with a Wimbledon semifinal and a title in Toronto lifting her back into the top ten. That said, even if Halep hadn’t called time on the season herself, she wouldn’t be allowed to compete anyway following her provisional suspension for alleged doping.
Halep’s absence means Świątek is the only player competing in the WTA Finals who has won a major in their career. Petra Kvitová, Jelena Ostapenko and Barbora Krejčíková had outside chances to get themselves in the mix but their seasons were too patchy for varying reasons. Players like Naomi Osaka, Emma Raducanu, Garbiñe Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Bianca Andreescu, whilst having moments of brilliance this year, rarely found themselves at the deep end of an event.
Though the aforementioned names might have added some star quality, it has to be said that as a representation of the 2022 season, the field we have is pretty spot on. Sure, it would have been nice to see Barty, Rybakina and Danielle Collins there given they featured in two of the four major finals this year. But the seven players that are joining Świątek have definitely earned their place, either through big headline results or consistency (a quality that continues to be underrated in tennis). The top eight all bring something exciting to the table.
The blockbuster names for this event are Świątek, Ons Jabeur, Coco Gauff and Caroline Garcia. Aside from the fact she has appeared in two major finals in 2022, Jabeur’s game style and trailblazing career always make her a headline name at any event. No one plays with the variety she has, and her willingness to go for any shot makes her very dangerous. Whilst she hasn’t managed to take down the world number one this year, she is one of the few players with the potential to mess with Świątek if they both bring their best. Jabeur is also very likable, and continues to win over crowds around the world. Name recognition from her final run in New York will help as well when she gets to Fort Worth.
Gauff has been touted as a big star since her breakout run at Wimbledon in 2019 (she was 15!), and were it not for Świątek she may well already have won a major in singles. The 18-year-old American has shown devastating tennis at points this year, but more than that she has shown how mentally strong she is. Even when not playing well, Gauff never gives up and has shown an ability to win when her game isn’t coming together, which will serve her well in the future. Aside from her Roland-Garros final, she has been regularly winning matches throughout the year, a trait that has gone a little under the radar. Furthermore, Gauff’s mature off-court demeanour is continuing to win over a lot of fans. She’s going to be making a lot of the headlines in Fort Worth.
Caroline Garcia is here because of her incredible mid-year run, which saw her win three titles on three different surfaces in three months, not to mention reach a major semi-final. Her smooth but explosive tennis won a lot of people back to her in North America as she showed the potential Andy Murray spotted in her as a teenager and the quality that had previously taken her to the top four in the rankings. Her title in Cincinnati can be seen as almost on par with winning a major, as she had to win eight consecutive matches (including qualifying) and beat three top-ten players (Sakkari, Pegula and Sabalenka) as well as a former major champion in Kvitová. Beating Świątek on clay in Poland was also extremely impressive. One stat to note is that Garcia is the only player other than Świątek and Jabeur to have a positive combined record against the WTA Finals field (Świątek is 19-1, Jabeur is 7-2 and Garcia is 4-2). Though she’s only 6th in the rankings, I’d put Garcia 3rd in terms of peak form found this year out of the field in Fort Worth.
Two players whose consistency has meant they have been mentioned throughout the year are Jessica Pegula and Daria Kasatkina. Whilst they don’t necessarily have a lot of firepower compared to many other players, they have been able to regularly bring their A-game and disrupt draws.
Pegula is almost the ultimate gatekeeper in the WTA at the moment. The stat that reflects this is that she’s lost to the eventual champion in eight out of eighteen events she has entered this year (if you add in Guadalajara, it means she was leading the pack in around half the tournaments she played). This includes the Madrid final, but even without that tournament Pegula has fallen to more eventual champions than anyone else. Given that four of these were to Świątek and another two were to Barty and Jabeur, this shows her to be playing at a very high level. It is of no surprise that her persistence paid off with a title in Guadalajara. She’s also regularly in the quarter-finals of every event she enters, which is impressive given these include majors and 1000s. In fact, she’s reached the last eight in three of the four majors in 2022, losing to the eventual champion every time. It is very much fitting that she is in the last eight for the year as well. The new American number one is setting the standard for the field in many events she enters, so it will be interesting to see how she does in Fort Worth.
Daria Kasatkina often gets dropped from people’s ideal WTA Finals fields, which I feel is harsh. She won a 500 title in San Jose and reached the semi-finals in Roland Garros, two results that deservedly made headlines. Her patient, counter-punching game works well in the current era and is the basis of her consistent performances through the year. Kasatkina has been in the mix for most of the events she’s entered so it makes sense that she be part of the Fort Worth field.
So far we’ve reviewed the star performers and the models of consistency. However, there are two wildcard participants whose qualification might raise some eyebrows: Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari.
If you told me at the beginning of the year that Aryna Sabalenka would be included in the WTA Finals field I would have been surprised. She wasn’t going that deep in tournaments and was dealing with a massive lack of confidence in her serve, a problem that could result in 20 double faults in individual matches. The fact she managed to turn things around sufficiently to reach two finals (Stuttgart and s-Hergotenbosch) and three semi-finals (Rome, Cincinnati and, most significantly, the U.S. Open) is a testament to her tenacity. Sabalenka, despite her inconsistencies, is a quality talent and her match management has improved throughout her career. She’s going to bring a lot of fire to this WTA Finals field, and her power game is definitely the big wildcard element.
Maria Sakkari is also a bit of a surprise, as like Sabalenka she is still in the top ten despite having a comparably less impressive season than in 2021. However, despite going deep in tournaments less frequently, Sakkari has had some good results. Whilst there have been plenty of early exits, the Greek has been also regularly banking match wins throughout the year. That run to the Indian Wells final was impressive, and she can be forgiven for losing to Świątek, who was really getting into the swing of her dominance. Sakkari has also been a big threat to the top players generally, her big hitting putting her in the mix when accurate.
So, this year’s WTA Finals has a lot for fans to be excited about: eight players who have proven to have shown exceptional peaks or exceptional consistency (or in Świątek’s case, both!). There’s some nice contrast in game styles, from the variety of Świątek and Jabeur to the big hitters like Sabalenka and Garcia and the counter-punchers of Gauff and Kasatkina. And there’s still plenty of star power and young talent there for those who value those aspects. Rather than hoping for something else, let’s enjoy what we have. I’m expecting it to be a highly entertaining event as always.