Women's tennis is overdue a shakeup
The end of the 2016 season marked the beginning of a new dawn for the Women's Tennis Association(WTA). From Serena Williams' dethroning as the World No. 1 to a complete revamp in the top 10 rankings, the final moments of the season gave us all a trailer as to what 2017 might entail for the WTA.
A new force is on the horizon
The WTA Tour has always been an unpredictable one. Contrary to its counterpart, the ATP Tour, which has been mainly dominated by the big four, women’s tennis has thrown up a lot of surprises in the past.
After Serena's memorable and breathtaking run was put to an end by the likes of Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber, a wave of resurgence was seen. Players who were never in the spotlight rose to stardom and fought their way to the top. At the same time, however, big names such as Caroline Wozniacki, Carla Suarez Navarro, and Petra Kvitova slipped further below in the rankings.
To put this into perspective, 22-year-old Ukrainian Elina Svitolina rose to the 13th spot in the rankings after finishing the season with a 44-23 record and consistent performances in Beijing, Moscow and Zhuhai. Similarly, 21-year-old Madison Keys moved to a career-best No. 8 with an astounding record of 47-18. She won a title in Birmingham and was also the runner-up in the Rome Masters and Rogers Cup.
Another name that comes up is Pliskova, who became the World No. 5 following her runners-up feat in the US Open. Needless to say, the young guns are making their move, giving the rest of the experienced ladies a run for their money.
A shaky start to 2017
The Australian Open series has been perceived by many to be a great practice run. With fatigue setting in after a long season, these few weeks before the first Grand Slam gives them a chance to develop some traction.
The first week of the year witnessed three tournaments which were played in Shenzhen, Auckland and Brisbane as a part of the WTA Tour. Except for Keys, all the other top 10 players played in at least one of the tournaments. And surprisingly enough, the results were absolutely jaw-dropping.
The Brisbane International was won by Pliskova, thus starting her bid for the 2017 season in the most effective manner possible. But what is more surprising is the defeat of Kerber to Svitolina. The two ladies met in the quarter-final and the young Ukrainian sailed to a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 victory.
While Kerber was struggling with her form in Brisbane, a few hundred miles away in Auckland, former World No. 1, Serena Williams was also seen struggling. Serena lost her second game of the year to the World No. 69 Madison Brengle, in three gruelling sets. Similarly, Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep crashed out early in the Shenzhen Open to Alison Riske and Katerina Siniakova respectively.
The German, Kerber, carried on the stigma to the Apia International, Sydney as well. Despite enjoying a bye into the second round, she lost to the 19-year-old Russian Daria Kasatkina 7-5(6), 6-2. Along with her, the winner of the 2016 WTA Finals, Dominika Cibulkova, lost in the second round to the recuperating Canadian, Eugenie Bouchard.
In fact, the Canadian No. 1 appears to be in good spirits off late and she looks confident enough to regain her form of 2014.
So far among the top 10 players, only Pliskova and Johanna Konta have been playing consistently, but the real question is whether they can carry that form into the Australian Open and subsequent tournaments.
What to expect
One thing which we can expect to see this season is a constant shuffling of the rankings in the lower half. Kerber and Williams are separated by more than 1800 points, while Williams and Radwanska have roughly the same difference in points.
However, as we move lower down the rankings, things get a lot more interesting. For instance, Lauren Davis' stunning win in Auckland propelled her 16 places to 46.
Secondly, given the way in which the young players have been dominating the tour over the last week, one can expect things to go in a similar manner the next few weeks as well.
Pliskova is one name that simply cannot be ignored. She has already sent out a strong message to the rest of the players that she is a force to be reckoned with. Her compatriot Siniakova too, will be on everyone’s radar now. Having won the title in Shenzhen, the 20-year-old has established her footing on the tour.
One can also expect big things from the British No. 1, Konta, who despite being consistent, still needs finishing touches in order to become a champion. Svitolina, too, is a contender for the top 10 and given the form she is in, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her occupy one of those coveted spots in a matter of months, if not weeks.
Maria Sharapova’s return to the tour in Stuttgart in April is also something fans will look forward to eagerly. The Russian star has been missed on the court and it’ll be intriguing to see how she fits in after her long layoff. At the same time, the rivalry between Williams and Kerber is set to intensify, but it will depend heavily on the American's sustenance, calibre and determination.
All in all, 2017 is going to be a historic year for the WTA.