The WTA of 2018, like the WTA of 2017, is nothing if not balanced.
In 2017, the WTA produced only one repeat major finalist over the course of the season: Venus Williams, a finalist in Australia, returned to a major final at Wimbledon. The other six slots occupied by major finalists belonged to one-time participants in 2017: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys.
We are done with three of the four majors in 2018, and so far, the same dynamic applies: Only one player has repeated as a major finalist. Simona Halep made the finals in Australia and Roland Garros. The other four slots were occupied by four different players: Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Serena, and Angelique Kerber. Serena might become the season’s second repeat major finalist at the U.S. Open. Kerber will face a much tougher road in New York with players such as Elina Svitolina and Wozniacki — who don’t know how to handle Wimbledon — being back in their element on hardcourts.
So there you have it: A woman nearly 37 years old might be the only player who can prevent the WTA from having seven different major finalists (in eight possible major final slots) for two straight years. If neither Serena nor Kerber make the final at the U.S. Open, the days of 2016 — when those two players occupied six of the WTA’s eight major final slots, three apiece — will be long gone.
It is true that Serena is back on tour, which makes her the force to be reckoned with more than any other in the sport. It is also true that after making the Wimbledon final — greatly exceeding expectations, very much including her own — the idea of Serena doing more incredible things not just next year, but at age 40 (should she want to play that long), is hardly ludicrous. Maybe Serena will end the year 2021 (when she turns 40) still imposing, still the toughest out in women’s tennis, still the player at the epicenter of the drama. She’s Serena Williams — as she reminded us this Wimbledon, of course she is capable of pulling that off.
But what if she doesn’t? Then what?
That’s the question on my mind — and on the minds of a lot of people who follow women’s tennis — after Wimbledon.
Here’s the two-sided reality of the WTA’s world of balance: On one hand, lots of seeded players have a shot to win majors. Halep and Wozniacki were highly ranked when making major finals this year, but Stephens, Kerber and Serena were seeded 10th or lower en route to major finals this year. Halep and Kerber have been the two most consistent players on tour this year, but after them, the notion of consistency has eluded many of the WTA’s top players.
This brings up the other side of the WTA’s existence: While lots of seeded players have a chance to win majors, few can be trusted. Wimbledon underscored this reality.
Of the top 10 seeds at Wimbledon in 2018, only three had previously made a Wimbledon final: Muguruza, Venus, and Petra Kvitova. Muguruza — who seems to do well at either Roland Garros OR Wimbledon in a given year, but never at BOTH in the SAME year — remained true to her history by crashing out of the Big Dubya in week one after making a semifinal run in Paris. Muguruza remains erratic and enigmatic at the majors, and her Stan Wawrinka-like tendency of showing up once every few majors is still intact. “Trust” is not something she merits on a relentlessly consistent basis; “trust” is better applied to the notion that she will raise her game in France or at the All England Club each year, but not at both places, and certainly not in Melbourne or New York, where she has yet to flourish.
Venus is 38 and going through a tough season. Kvitova needs comfortable playing conditions to be at her best, and the warm-to-hot weather at Wimbledon did not line up in her favor. All in all, none of the top 10 WTA seeds at Wimbledon entered the tournament meriting complete trust. Past performance at Wimbledon or on grass was unconvincing for most; for the three women who had previously reached a Wimbledon final, the circumstances attached to 2018 did not offer much reason for encouragement.
Sure enough, none of the top 10 seeds performed at levels which justified any particular degree of trust. Reasonable people will disagree, but for me, Madison Keys’ third-round loss to Evgeniya Rodina was the most disappointing result of any top-10 WTA seed at Wimbledon. Not at least being able to test her game against Serena in the fourth round represented a wasted trip to the All England Club. Keys should be so successful on grass, and yet Wimbledon is the one major where she hasn’t yet reached the semifinals.
What we have on the WTA Tour is a picture of health. Balance, depth, unpredictability, quality tennis — they’re all evident, and they all emerged at Wimbledon. Yet, alongside the compelling tennis lies the accompanying reality that the top-10 seeds weren’t part of the fun. Interesting matches were played and a number of proven players stepped up, Kerber most of all, but the absence of any top-10 seeds from the quarterfinals was impossible to ignore.
This is why the question raised above — what if Serena doesn’t remain a top-tier force akin to 2016? — hangs over the WTA Tour. Will each major tournament be a “wheel of destiny”? I hasten to say: This is not a bad scenario. The WTA’s unpredictability last year and this one has coincided with highly entertaining tennis — so what if there’s a different final matchup each time? If the journey is pleasing, the destination is easy to accept.
This question about Serena’s staying power is not meant to suggest that the WTA has a “good future or a bad future” ahead of it. No — that’s not the intent behind that query. The purpose of the question is to determine if we’re going to continue to witness constant variety in finalists and champions, or if a few players will become regulars and replace Serena at the year’s biggest tournaments.
Sloane Stephens, in her last four majors, has gone from champion to first rounder to finalist to first-rounder. That’s Muguruza’s music, played to a higher volume level on your radio dial. Jelena Ostapenko lost in round one in Paris and then made the Wimbledon semifinals. Madison Keys thrived in Paris and stubbed her toe at SW19. Svitolina made the quarters in Australia but then failed to get out of the first week in France and at Wimbledon. 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Julia Goerges are not portraits of rock-solid consistency at majors, either.
This is a volatile tour right now — again, that’s not a bad thing, but when evaluating players, I am looking at the WTA and waiting for the next player who will subdue most of the tour at majors. Halep and Kerber are exemplars of a positive consistency… but are conspicuously isolated in that regard (and even Halep lost early at Wimbledon, but after winning Roland Garros, she gets a pass). Where is the next especially great career coming from? Muguruza and Stephens, at their best, look like 10-major-winning players, but they don’t yet exhibit 10-major-winning tendencies. Ostapenko needs to beef up her serve, but when she is crushing return winners, she is a matchup nightmare for much of the tour.
The bottom line after Wimbledon: Women’s tennis, collectively, is in great shape. So much good tennis was played at Wimbledon, producing a blockbuster final between two players who are proven champions and offered a delicious contrast in styles. The uncertainty attached to WTA tennis is not a negative, but for the top players on tour other than Serena, the task of creating a career which will be spoken of in reverential tones seems more remote and unrealistic than ever. The 2018 U.S. Open might begin to change that dynamic, but we won’t truly know if the sands are shifting until next spring at Roland Garros.