For a sport with a World No. 1 player who has not yet won a major, women’s tennis is doing spectacularly well.
It wasn’t fair when Caroline Wozniacki got pounded for having the audacity to dare get No. 1 several years ago despite never having won a major. Anyone who pounced on Karolina Pliskova last summer or Simona Halep for similarly becoming No. 1 without a top-tier trophy is being similarly uncharitable.
This is the bottom line about WTA tennis: Why be negative toward a major-less No. 1 when the larger product is so compelling? The Miami Open is showing that an already-strong product is getting better and is poised (if injuries can stay away) for a sensational spring and summer.
If you had been told before the Miami Open that the top two seeds AND the two Indian Wells finalists would all be out of the tournament by Saturday at dinnertime, would you have been excited about the final few rounds of the tournament? You might have, but probably because you’re one of those people who loves total chaos in a tournament and enjoys the unpredictability of it all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being that kind of person or having that preference — variety is the spice of life, and all preferences are welcome at the banquet table of #TennisTwitter and tennis fandom.
Nevertheless, if you had been told that Halep, Wozniacki, Naomi Osaka, and Daria Kasatkina would all be out of Key Biscayne by late Saturday afternoon, you might have had a few reservations about how well the WTA would perform and entertain in Miami. Fans might have been concerned about a lot of obscure or low-wattage players occupying the prime quarterfinal or semifinal slots in South Florida, in the last big hardcourt event before the start of the clay season.
Two losing quarterfinalists: Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, the two players who contested the 2016 U.S. Open final and played a very good match under withering pressure.
Two guaranteed semifinalists: Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, five years after their memorable Australian Open semifinal. With Azarenka unexpectedly thriving this soon after her prolonged absence from the tour due to a custody battle over her son, and Stephens fully regrouping after an injury to reclaim the form which won the 2017 U.S. Open, a Vika-Sloane showdown promises as much popcorn as any meeting between Indian Wells finalists or top seeds ever could. It is a blockbuster — that is not an inaccurate or oversized word for the occasion.
The four other quarterfinalists — who will play on Wednesday at the Crandon Park Tennis Center — are Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Elina Svitolina, and Danielle Collins. Of those four, only Collins is one of those “obscure” players (quickly becoming more and more familiar to fans) mentioned above. Venus is an icon. Ostapenko is the reigning French Open champion. Svitolina has a case to make as the most consistent month-to-month player over the past 11 months on tour, and is believed to be a future major champion.
This is all with Maria Sharapova out of the picture and Serena Williams needing ample time to get back into ideal playing shape following a complicated childbirth.
The WTA surprised many in the tennis community after Serena left the stage last year by providing such powerfully compelling tennis in the absence of some of its rock stars, Vika and Maria included. As the summer arrived, it became clear that the altered landscape was not a diminished one. If anything, it had gotten better.
In 2018, which has been marked by big forward steps from Kerber (January), Petra Kvitova (February), Kasatkina (February and March), Osaka and Venus (March), and now Stephens and Azarenka in Miami, the WTA is adding one more layer of intrigue to another. By the time the French Open arrives — and the busiest part of the tennis year explodes into vivid relief — the WTA (if the injuries stay away) is poised to offer a cornucopia of consequential and captivating collisions. What was great in 2017 could become greater in 2018.
The Miami Open is adding to the consistently growing sense that WTA tennis is not only flourishing in the present tense, but has a future soaked in optimism.