In the absence of a clear pecking order, there’s a sense of evenness about the women’s field at the French Open
When Karolina Pliskova won the Italian Open on Sunday, she became only the third woman — along with Petra Kvitova and Kiki Bertens — to win more than one title this season. The 24 tournaments so far have seen 21 different winners.
This has been a feature of women’s tennis since Serena Williams’ maternity break in early 2017. In the absence of a dominant champion, a clear pecking order and a mid-card that constantly snaps at the heels of the elite, there has been a first-time winner in five of the past eight Grand Slam tournaments.
Before current World No. 1 Naomi Osaka claimed back-to-back Majors (the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open), the last player to achieve that feat other than Serena was Kim Clijsters eight years ago (the 2010 US Open and 2011 Australian Open). As a consequence, come Sunday, the French Open will commence in Paris with one of its most open fields in recent years.
Historically though, the women’s game has boasted of far steadier ensembles, as evident from the eras of Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin.
Navratilova and Evert played a staggering 80 times from 1973 to 1988, including 22 matches in Grand Slams. Fourteen of those matches were finals, with Navratilova taking the title ten times. In the three years from 1991 to 1993, Seles won seven Majors to Graf’s five. In those 12 tournaments, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario made six last-four and two final appearances, setting up a neat order. From 2003 to 2007, Serena, Venus and Henin combined to pocket 13 of the 20 Majors.
This doesn’t however mean that the present WTA era is a period of vapid vacuum. It doesn’t possess a gold standard for sure, but it is nothing like the phase after Henin when the likes of Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki finished the year ranked No. 1 (2008, 2010 and 2011). Even as we rightly doff our hats to their consistency, it must be said that much of their play was passive. Wozniacki would win a Major only half a decade later, after shoring up her offensive game.
Today’s roster is a more eclectic mix of styles and nationalities, making it a thrill-a-minute roller coaster. There is no exclusive tier, but the group that is tightly bunched together does compel attention. The ATP, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is arguably more watchable, because it’s easy to follow, but if one were to pick two names to contest the women’s final two weeks from now, it will at once seem familiar as well as novel.
Kvitova and Osaka come to the second Major of the year with multiple-Slam-winning pedigree. Pliskova just won her biggest title on clay in Rome — the closest proxy for Roland Garros — while Bertens achieved something similar by triumphing at the Madrid Open the week before. Simona Halep is the defending champion and the most natural clay-courter of them all.
That big-hitters Kvitova, Osaka and Pliskova are among the favourites on what is considered the slowest of surfaces shouldn’t surprise us. All three play varying forms of first-strike tennis, with Kvitova and Osaka, in particular, preferring a no-holds-barred approach. But with the homogenisation of courts, they have been able to replicate their styles across surfaces with subtle variations.
As proof, data analyst Jeff Sackman considered the five-year rolling average for rally length in the women’s finals of each Grand Slam from 1985 to 2015. For 1985, the rally length was seven shots at the French Open and around four at the other three. In 2015, it dropped to four at Paris while the US and Australian Opens stayed at four (see: It’s got shorter in Paris).
Also, with superior racquet technology and better conditioning, the hitting pace has jumped manifold. When Jelena Ostapenko won Roland Garros in 2017, her average forehand speed was measured at a whopping 76mph. Andy Murray’s in contrast was 73mph. The same year, Australian Open published data from its previous three editions, which clocked Federer at 75.3 and Serena at 72.
In fact, six of the last seven French crowns have been won by strong ball-strikers: Maria Sharapova (2), Serena (2), Garbine Muguruza (1) and Ostapenko (1). Not all of them move naturally on clay, but they have the knack of opening up the court to take up more aggressive positions. Even on defence, they are adept at first neutralising the rally, like Pliskova did in Rome with her slicing, and pulling the trigger a shot later.
Pliskova and Serena also have two of the best serves in the sport. On clay, where there aren’t that many unreturnables, a good serve is an effective tool to set up the third shot, often a put-away. Halep, on the other hand, has moulded her game on clay since childhood. She isn’t remotely as powerful as the others but is a smooth lateral mover, sliding from end to end, returning every ball and patiently wearing her opponents down. Bertens’ is an in-between style: she is a counter-puncher who can reel off winners from either wing. Of her nine WTA trophies, six were earned on the dirt.
This diverse set of players certainly has the game to rack up the big prizes, but some of its members have struggled with the demands of winning consistently. Since Wimbledon 2017, Muguruza has claimed just three Tour titles in nearly two years. Ostapenko has only one tournament win outside of Paris. Sloane Stephens has tailed off since the US Open victory in 2017. Elina Svitolina, whose conversion rate in tournament finals is astonishing (13 wins from 15), is yet to reach a Major semifinal.
Osaka’s is a problem of a different kind. The 21-year-old wins 76% of all her Grand Slam matches, while her win ratio at other tournaments is in the 50s. During this clay swing, she has also been blighted by injuries, which have forced her to withdraw from two of the three events.
“I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself and found it hard to deal with in the first few tournaments,” Osaka said, referring to the adulation after her triumph in New York. “Now, I start trying to have fun out there, which is what I did before I was No. 1. The Grand Slams are like a playground for me. I have a lot of fun there. So I am going to approach it [Roland Garros] like how I did with the Australian Open.
“[On clay] I don’t necessarily see myself as a favourite,” she said in Madrid. “But I see myself as a seed, so I shouldn’t necessarily be losing in the first round, and I have high goals for myself. I have always been that type of person.”
When Osaka beat Serena in the final of the 2018 US Open, it appeared to signal a changing of the guard. But the past — Angelique Kerber and Muguruza had beaten the great American for their first Majors — tempered expectations.
However the manner in which she backed it up in Melbourne was character-revealing. Serena is still around, trying to resurrect an injury-plagued 2019. But a third successive Grand Slam title for Osaka will ensure that the post-Serena era, whenever it is ushered in, will have its main-event star.
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