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3 WTA players who could win a maiden Grand Slam in 2021

Aryna Sabalenka
Aryna Sabalenka
Nurein Ahmed
ANALYST
Modified 18 Jan 2021
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Since the beginning of 2010, the WTA has almost invariably produced first-time Grand Slam winners each year. The trend was disrupted briefly in 2014 - with Li Na and Petra Kvitova capturing their second Grand Slam singles titles - but it was restored the very next year.

Contrary to the ATP tour where the Big 3 have predominantly featured in the winners' circle at the four prestigious tournaments in the calendar, women’s tennis has seen a lot more variety. Serena Williams had her fair share of Grand Slam successes in the last decade, winning a total of nine between 2010-2019, but no other woman has come close to matching her consistency.

Instead, each year has thrown up a new first-time champion, and that is likely to continue in 2021. But who are the three players most likely to achieve superstar status at the four Grand Slams this year?

1. Elena Rybakina

Elena Rybakina won her second career title in Hobart last January
Elena Rybakina won her second career title in Hobart last January

Current ranking: 19th

Best Grand Slam result: Round of 32 (Australian Open 2020)

Elena Rybakina looks destined to follow in the footsteps of Sofia Kenin, who won three WTA titles in 2019 before her spectacular Australian Open triumph in 2020.

Rybakina ticks all the boxes of a potential future star. At 6ft the Kazakh is one of the tallest players in the women’s circuit, and she is blessed with an abundance of power and penetration.

Rybakina's monstrous serve and flat groundstrokes make her a perennial danger for any of the top players. In fact, no WTA player came close to matching the 21-year-old's tally of 193 aces during the 2020 season.

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Rybakina won her second WTA tour title in Hobart last January, and finished runner-up at four other tournaments. Her explosive start to the year saw her win 21 of her first 25 matches, and it took some of the finest players in the game to stop her in her tracks - Simona Halep beat her in a classic in Dubai, and Elina Svitolina came from a set down to win the final in Strasbourg.

Rybakina was a nominee for the WTA’s Most Improved Player award, having vaulted from 37th to inside the top 20 in the WTA rankings. Her best Grand Slam result is a third round at the Australian Open, where she lost to World No.1 Ashleigh Barty.

If Rybakina can make another of her trademark starts in 2021, Melbourne could be a scene of another first-time Grand Slam champion.

2. Coco Gauff

Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff

Current ranking: 48th

Best Grand Slam result: Fourth round (Wimbledon 2019, Australian Open 2020)

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Coco Gauff is a classic example of a player punching way above her weight. On a tour where many 16-year-olds would feel like deer caught in the headlights, Gauff plays like a veteran surveying a long career - cool, calm and collected.

She is currently placed at No. 48 in the WTA rankings, with Iga Swiatek and Amanda Anisimova (both 19) being the only higher-ranked teenagers inside the world's top 50. That is a testament to Gauff's stunning rise in the last couple of seasons.

For context, the next-ranked 16-year-old (also an American - Robin Montgomery) is ranked as low as No. 413 in the world.

Gauff announced her arrival on the big stage when she knocked-out seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon 2019. That victory was preceded by a historic qualifying run at the event; at 15 years and 122 days, Gauff was the youngest player in Wimbledon history to earn a spot in the main draw.

The American's run to the fourth round of Wimbledon that year made such a strong impression that many people didn't take notice of her first WTA title in Linz towards the end of the season.

Her stock has since risen markedly in the last 18 months. She also made the second week of a Grand Slam at the Australian Open last January, beating Venus Williams for a second time along the way.

There is a lot to admire about Gauff's tennis skills. She is electric. Her footwork and general coordination are still a work in a progress but she covers a lot of ground compared to her contemporaries, who move with smaller and less efficient steps. That helps her get to balls quicker and finish points on her terms.

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Gauff's Grand Slam record at only 16 is something that half of the tour would kill for. And as a former junior World No. 1 and winner of the 2018 French Open girls' title, the American teenage sensation is on course for a monumental breakthrough at the Grand Slam level in 2021.

In Gauff's world, everything is possible.

3. Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka won her ninth career title in Abu Dhabi
Aryna Sabalenka won her ninth career title in Abu Dhabi

Current ranking: 7th

Best Grand Slam result: Fourth round (US Open 2018)

Aryna Sabalenka's rich vein of form has propelled her to the top 10 of the WTA rankings. She has begun this year just the way she ended the previous one - by winning a title.

Sabalenka is the most in-form player on tour right now. She captured her ninth career title at the Abu Dhabi Open last week, in what was an extremely tough field.

Her success in the Emirati capital extended her winning streak to 15 matches, and according to bookmakers she is now among the top five women who could win next month's Australian Open.

That said, the Belarusian has flattered to deceive at the each of the four Grand Slams in recent seasons. Her best Slam result remains a fourth round appearance (achieved at the US Open in 2018), the only time she has made the second week of a Major.

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But there seems to be aura of invincibility around Sabalenka when she takes to the court now. Her confidence is at an all-time high, and she is hitting the ball with incredible power and precision.

Maybe this is the time the stars will align and finally give Sabalenka a shot at them, beginning with the Australian Open.

Published 18 Jan 2021, 12:00 IST
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