The WTA is an endlessly fascinating place as the winter and early-spring hardcourt swing gives way to clay.
Not only does the sense of possibility on tour seem infinite; certain terms or notions don’t necessarily apply to women’s tennis in only one way.
Consider the notion of stasis. It is true that we are seeing different champions and finalists at the big tournaments, but within this climate of difference and change lies a measure of stability. Jelena Ostapenko wandered off the reservation for awhile and Sloane Stephens had to battle yet another injury, yet they went the distance in Miami with Stephens winning a razor-close first-set tiebreaker en route to a Premier Mandatory championship. Simona Halep lost early in Miami but has generally been a semifinal-level player on tour this year. Venus Williams made deep runs in Indian Wells and Miami to remind us she still has the knack for winning extremely complicated and long matches at age 37. Angelique Kerber, though losing some of the mustard on her fastball — her hitting was not that crisp in Miami — made quarterfinals in Southern California and South Florida in March. Far from her best, she still problem-solved well enough to collect points and sustain her 2018 season to a certain degree.
Sure, Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka lost early in Miami, but Osaka lost to Elina Svitolina and became a casualty of a luckless draw. Kasatkina played a lot of tennis over the previous month, as did Halep and Caroline Wozniacki. Miami is often a place when high-mileage seasons run out of gas and need the pit stop provided by the transition to another surface and continent. Beneath those and other early flameouts in South Florida lie many examples of durable, stable WTA seasons from notable players.
It can be argued that while this is no longer the tour of 2015, when Serena Williams made the final in nearly every important tournament, this is still a stable tour; the difference is that the amount of depth which has steadily been rising on the WTA Tour over the years is now so pronounced that a dozen women can win important tournaments. This is no longer a situation in which players ranked Nos. 3-12 are weak. The WTA Tour is in the process of becoming a place where the strength of a player ranked outside the top 10 is now so considerable that the rankings mean less than they used to (but still hold value given the ability to avoid playing certain players until certain rounds of tournaments). Having different winners and finalists at tournaments in the next four months of 2018 (through Wimbledon) could mean total chaos, but it could just as easily mean that a cluster of high-quality players simply beat each other up. We will have to wait to find out.
The other great possibility, however, in the coming months of 2018 is that the old guard will strike back. Victoria Azarenka showed that she is on the cusp of reclaiming the winning ways of past seasons, before injuries and life complications got in her way. This doesn’t guarantee anything for her, but when compared to Maria Sharapova, Azarenka lives in a totally different tennis universe these days.
Then there is Serena, who needs time to get back into full playing shape while adjusting to motherhood, which is no small thing. As with Novak Djokovic on the men’s side, Serena should not be handcuffed to a specific set of expectations or a strict timetable. She has, however, gotten her feet wet, which is itself a step in a process. We have seven weeks to see how much progress she makes before the French Open begins.
If the late spring and early summer become an Old Guard meeting place, that would mean a Garbine Muguruza storming of the Bastille at Roland Garros, Serena returning to form at Wimbledon, with Azarenka and Kerber being factors in one or both places and Venus making a run at the Big W on grass. Yet, with all the players gaining confidence in Indian Wells and Miami — plus Wozniacki shedding her burdens and Halep evolving as a professional — women’s tennis doesn’t “need” the Old Guard to hold down the fort to create a supremely compelling year. The considerable variety in major-tournament contenders means that while the WTA offers different finalists on a relatively continuous basis, the tour’s capacity to provide an “out of nowhere” success story is DECREASING as the scene shifts to clay.
Yes, Naomi Osaka’s Indian Wells win came out of nowhere, but that was an exception and not part of a pattern. Sloane Stephens beat Azarenka in Indian Wells and was pointing in the right direction entering Miami. Kasatkina’s run to the Indian Wells final came on the heels of a strong February in the Middle East. Ostapenko is a hit-or-miss player, but she has championship experience to call upon even though she is still volatile and very young. It’s not jawdropping that she made the Miami final.
Stasis and chaos — two opposites — don’t fit into neat little boxes on the WTA Tour right now. Be careful how you label or view certain terms… and don’t expect more Naomi Osaka-style runs this year. The tour is too deep to keep inviting those kinds of scenarios as the season moves to clay.