Drama, rather than consistency, was the calling card of women’s tennis once again this season.
The sport has been left slightly adrift in a sea of talented, but temperamental, players since Serena Williams went on maternity leave last January. As was the case last year, four different players were crowned Grand Slam champions in 2018.
While Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep shed their forever-the-bridesmaid tag at the Australian Open and the French Open respectively, Angelique Kerber made a strong return to form at Wimbledon. The last major of the year sprung the biggest surprise, as 21-year-old Naomi Osaka announced herself on the big stage by beating Serena Williams in the US Open final. They had all carved out their own remarkable path to glory, but none could sustain it for too long. They were either out of form or fitness by the time the WTA Finals in Singapore came along. Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina stepped up to the plate and claimed that piece of silverware.
What it all adds up to is: there have been eight different winners in the last eight majors. If you add WTA Finals to the mix, nine different players have won last 10 of the most important trophies in women’s tennis. Wozniacki is the only repeat winner — she had won the season-ender in Singapore in 2017.
“I guess this lack of consistency is the new normal and we're going to keep on seeing it,” Martina Navratilova wrote in her column for the WTA official site. “You have more parity and a deeper field, which is a good thing, but at the same time it's harder to develop rivalries and also superstars if you have so many different people winning things.”
The last two Grand Slams of the year underlined just the unpredictability. For the first time in Wimbledon history, none of the top five seeds made it to the round of 16. At the US Open, ten of the top-13 were out by the fourth round and none made it to the semi-finals.
But this volatile world of women’s tennis brings an atmosphere of its own. It breeds hope and offers a greater chance of salvation.
Hope had been Wozniacki and Halep’s best friend coming into Australia. Both the women were ranked No 1 in the world at some point in time; neither of them had ever won a Grand Slam before. And their face-off in the final of the Australian Open was possibly the most gripping display of grit this season. They struggled in the oppressive conditions but carried on rallying. Halep had to call the doctor on court in the second set and had her blood pressure checked. After the match she was taken to the hospital to rehydrate, but while on it, the 5’6 Halep didn’t give an inch. Wozniacki held her nerve to win the battle 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-4 after two hours and 49 minutes. The Dane was finally the last woman standing in a Slam after 43 attempts.
Halep overturned the disappointment at the Australian Open by winning her favourite major: the French Open. The tiny Romanian ran relentlessly on Parisian clay and bounced back from a set down against Sloane Stephens to win the final. While her height doesn’t give her enough leverage to power down a serve, Halep is one of the best returners in the game, and was the best this year. Over 55 matches in 2018, she won 48.5% return games.
With three titles (Shenzen, Roland Garros, Montreal), three finals and a win-loss record of 46-11, she was the most consistent player on the tour and rightly finished the year ranked No 1.
But even Halep couldn’t escape the downward slide that has inevitably followed women’s Slam champions, not named Serena Williams, in recent times. The Romanian lost in the third round at Wimbledon and suffered an opening round defeat at the US Open.
Wimbledon saw the emergence of two familiar forces in the women’s game. While Serena had already returned to majors at the French Open, it was on Wimbledon’s slick grass that she made her move. On the other half of the draw, Angelique Kerber seemed to have put a horror 2017 truly behind and return with purpose. The ultra-defensive player showed she could just as smoothly switch to offense. Kerber played an almost flawless match to beat Serena in the final in straight sets and capture her third Grand Slam.
If redemption stories dominated the first three majors of the year, it was time to mint a brand new champion at the US Open. Japan’s Osaka has been on the radar for some time now, but not many expected the then 20-year-old to deliver such a cool, collected performance under pressure. Having lost only one set en route the final, Osaka saved her best for the last – against her idol Serena.
The Japanese was laser-sharp in her focus even as the 23-time Grand Slam champion famously lost hers in the championship clash. Serena clashed with umpire Carlos Ramos over a code violation for coaching, racquet abuse – which resulted in loss of a point and eventually a game. At the other side of the net, Osaka, playing in her first major final, continued to strike the ball with authority. Osaka finished the job, winning the match 6-2, 6-4 before she was reduced to tears, as much by the occasion as the unfair booing New York crowd.
The defeat meant Serena will have to wait till 2019 at least to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 singles Grand Slam titles. But the American had already made a remarkable return to the game, making the final of Wimbledon and US Open only months after giving birth to a daughter. Serena survived multiple surgeries that were required post-delivery and made her return to the court in spring, in a shiny new, black catsuit. Though she took some time finding her feet on the court, and is still some way from her peak form, new mom Serena made the title rounds at the last two Slams.
That Serena-Ramos moment at the US Open threatens to dominate discussion. But it was only a flashpoint in another exciting, rollercoaster ride for women’s tennis. It will be interesting to see if it steadies in 2019 with Serena almost back in charge.
Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 18:07 PM