Before the 2020 French Open, it felt like a hierarchy had finally been established at the top of women’s tennis.
In September, Naomi Osaka looked every inch one of the three best players in the world when she won the US Open for a second time. And Simona Halep, the most consistent player and also arguably the best, claimed her second and third titles of the year to set herself up perfectly for a second Roland Garros crown.
When the Romanian lifted the trophy in Rome, it seemed clear that she and Osaka were the best in the world, and that Ashleigh Barty would have to play well to keep pace with them when she returned to the tour in January 2021.
Then Swiatek destroyed the field at the French Open and the picture changed dramatically. It was the exact opposite of the result that would have cemented the status of Halep and Osaka as the women to beat.
To make matters worse for those at the top, Sofia Kenin reached her second Grand Slam final, so her top five credentials cannot be discounted in this debate. It all makes for an intriguing and unpredictable pool of contenders for the biggest titles, and Bianca Andreescu can also be added to the mix – if she finds a way to stay fit.
Are the youngsters taking over?
While young players are certainly becoming a huge part of the elite, I do not see the situation in the same way as Guardian journalist Tumaini Carayol. After Swiatek’s French Open win, he wrote, “In some ways women’s tennis has not been open for the past two years. The youth have arrived and they are consistently slamming the door on the rest.”
It is a great line, and Carayol undeniably makes a good point, which he then drives home by bringing up the (slightly erroneous) fact that seven of the last eight Grand Slam titles have been won by players under the age of 23.
Although this is a compelling argument, it must be acknowledged that more established players have had clear opportunities to win some of those majors and, if they had, the picture would look very different.
The 2020 Australian Open final is a prime example. Garbine Muguruza played well to win the first set and looked on course for her third Grand Slam title. Then she faltered and Kenin punished her. However much credit you give the American, it was a golden chance missed by the Spaniard.
At the 2019 Australian Open, Osaka recorded consecutive three-set wins over Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova in the semi-finals and final. While the Japanese player deserves immense credit for coming out on top in both encounters, either could have been won by her more experienced opponent.
The argument is further weakened by the categorisation of Barty as a youngster. By the time she won the 2019 French Open, she was very much an established player on the WTA tour. The Australian had already spent 18 months in the top 20 and people were starting to talk about her as a Grand Slam contender. Furthermore, she was actually 23 when she won at Roland Garros in June 2019 (her birthday is 24 April 1996).
So if you take Barty out of the equation and, for the sake of this argument, you give Kenin’s Australian Open win to Muguruza, the assertion that the young players are taking over seems a bit exaggerated.
Established stars must respond
However you judge what has gone on in the last 24 months on the WTA tour, one thing is clear: 2021 is a massive year for everyone. It is particularly important for the established players, whose ranks now include Osaka and Barty, as they can no longer be considered youngsters when they have been in the top 5 for so long.
Therefore, if the likes of Halep, Osaka and Barty win most of the Grand Slam titles between them, their status as the best in the world will be secure. But if Swiatek, Andreescu and Kenin win two or more majors between them, their gate-crashing of the elite will be complete. And if another youngster becomes a first-time Grand Slam champion, it will add yet more unpredictability to the gloriously madcap saga of women’s tennis. It will be fascinating to see what happens.