Lack of a dominant force on WTA Tour is sign of strength not weakness

To paint women's circuit in a negative light is unfair reflection on the depth of talent currently contesting major titles

This handout photo released by the Tennis Australia on February 21, 2021 shows Japan's Naomi Osaka posing with her winning trophy in the locker room after her women's singles final match against Jennifer Brady of the US on day thirteen of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. XGTY / -----EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /FIONA HAMILTON/ TENNIS AUSTRALIA " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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For a while now, the most common, yet least accurate, narrative surrounding women’s tennis has been that there is no consistency on the WTA tour; that it is chaotic and unpredictable.

The lack of a dominant force – à la Serena Williams in her peak years, or the ATP’s ‘Big Three’ – has led many pundits and fans to mistakenly paint the women’s circuit in a negative light.

They view the depth in the women’s field as a weakness instead of a strength, and are missing out on the season-long context of WTA tennis by just focusing on the four Grand Slams and worrying about how many times the No 1 ranking has switched hands.

Take this simple stat as an example. In a recent conversation, someone told me that a sign of the erratic nature of the WTA tour was the fact that we’ve witnessed five first-time Grand Slam champions in the last nine majors.

Also true is that Naomi Osaka has won four of those last nine majors. Discussing the same time period, you get two very different stats implying almost opposite sides of the argument.

If you really want to assess the level of consistency on the WTA tour, then the answer has got to be way more nuanced than simply listing the names of recent slam winners.

Yes, the degree of depth on the WTA has reached such great heights that it feels like anyone can beat anyone on a given day. Upsets are aplenty and many new names have emerged but a close look at the biggest events on tour since the start of 2019 tells a different story.

Of the 50 tournaments at the WTA 500 level (formerly Premier level) or higher played since the beginning of 2019 (including slams and year-end championships), 29 were won by a top-10 player and a total of 40 were captured by a top-20 player.

Just 12 women accounted for 44 of the 50 titles won at that level, with four players (Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova) combining to claim 24 of them.

"What we've seen really over the last two to three years, maybe even four, is the solidifying of a group of players as being the ones who are the ones to beat on the tour. The depth has kind of solidified," Courtney Nguyen, a senior writer for WTA Insider, told The National.

“You need consistency on multiple levels, right? You need consistency not just among a certain top echelon group of players to generally dominate as a group, but you also need the consistency of that second tier, that middle-class group of players to be consistent threats.

“Because one-off threats week by week, that just leans towards more ‘chaos and unpredictability’, whereas when you have a set of players who you know can reliably challenge the dominant group, then you have rivalries and then you have dramatic tension and then you having a compelling product that is viewed more positively and I think that’s what we’re seeing particularly in 2021 but even it was bubbling last year in the interrupted season and also in 2019.”

One of the many intriguing rivalries that have developed recently is the one between reigning world No 1 Barty and new world No 4 Sabalenka.

Barty, who was bizarrely criticised for keeping her position at the summit while the rankings were frozen and she was out of action due to travel restrictions in Australia during the pandemic, has claimed eight singles trophies at the 500-level or higher since the start of 2019, while Sabalenka is close behind with six.

On Saturday in Madrid, they faced off for the third time in five weeks, and were meeting in a final for a second consecutive tournament. Barty came out on top in the first two of those encounters, beating the Belarusian in the Miami quarter-finals and the Stuttgart title decider before Sabalenka struck back to lift the trophy in the Spanish capital to level up their overall head-to-head to an even 4-4.

Barty was contesting her fourth final of the season, while Sabalenka was in her third. They’re both multiple-time titlists in 2021 and have respectively gone on impressive runs in their own unique ways.

The 23-year-old Sabalenka amassed a 15-match winning streak between October and January that saw her clinch three titles back-to-back in Ostrava, Linz and Abu Dhabi. Barty put together a 16-match undefeated run on red clay – her least favourite surface – that started with her Roland Garros title triumph back in 2019 and ended at the weekend in Madrid.

Have I mentioned that Barty and Sabalenka have also won doubles Grand Slam titles? If that’s not consistency, I don’t know what is!

Another player that went on a roll after the tour restarted from its five-month pandemic-induced hiatus was Osaka, who won 23 matches in a row between August and March. Iga Swiatek followed up her maiden title success at the French Open last fall by lifting a second trophy a few months later in Adelaide.

“I do think that consistency on the WTA tour, not just among big players, but just consistency on the whole is an underrated quality on the WTA tour,” says Nguyen.

Tennis - WTA Premier 5 - Italian Open - Foro Italico, Rome, Italy - May 11, 2021 Czech Republic's Karolina Pliskova in action during a training session REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane
World No 9 Karolina Pliskova during a training session at the Italian Open on Tuesday, May 11. Reuters

“Underrated by the commentariat, underrated by fans; as tennis has evolved to where the grand slams have become the four tent-pole events, primarily because of prize money – they’re prestigious because they pay the most – there has been this idea of the Slams being the ultimate prize in tennis and that what you do over the course of a two-week fortnight is going to be superior to what you do over the course of a 52-week span of playing professional tennis.

“I think that that’s a bit laughable – not that one is better than the other, but that one has been so undervalued compared to the other, is a bit concerning I think. Because it results in a lack of understanding of the context of the sport, of why the events like this week in Rome are significant, or why Madrid last week is significant.”

Reducing a 10-month tour to just 12 weeks of Grand Slam tennis, and basing judgment of the women’s game solely on the majors is essentially what is feeding these misconceptions.

Consistency on the big stage has definitely improved and the narrative has indeed changed but it is taking some time for people to acknowledge this development, according to Nguyen.

“It takes a two-season cycle, in my experience, for people to catch up to what the current narrative on tour is and what is happening on tour just because you want data points. And what we’re seeing now is that this consistency, to bring the consistency against the quality of opposition that currently exists on tour, with respect to the depth, that is something that is now being lauded – as it should be,” she added.

The WTA right now has the perfect mix of top-tier players excelling at the biggest events, and a super-strong chasing pack – that includes the likes of Elise Mertens and Maria Sakkari – that is constantly challenging them.

The dominant group may not be as tight as the ATP’s timeless ‘Big Three’, but it’s providing a wider variety of personalities, rivalries and playing styles, and is pushing the collective to up their game at every corner.

Just wait, the product will keep getting stronger, while still maintaining a degree of unpredictability that will soon be celebrated instead of criticised.

epa09179575 Elise Mertens of Belgium in action during her quarterfinal match against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament in Madrid, Spain, 05 May 2021.  EPA/JUANJO MARTINEZ
Belgium's Elise Mertens during her Madrid Open quarter-final defeat against Aryna Sabalenka on Wednesday, May 5. EPA