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In this hardcourt summer, women’s tennis is full of possibilities

After Wimbledon, the tennis world catches its breath. The month and a half encompassing Roland Garros and The Championships is the busiest, most consequential period of the tennis calendar in a normal year (unlike 2020 and its pandemic disruptions). Three of the four majors have been played. The Olympics offer an added plot complication this year, but the big focus will be on the U.S. Open in September. Unlike the Tokyo Summer Games and unlike its 2020 iteration in New York, the U.S. Open will have fans in the seats.

Those spectators will have a fascinating tournament to watch.

What is the main storyline in women’s tennis coming out of Wimbledon and heading into the hardcourt summer? Some might say that the title of “best player in the world” is up for grabs between Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka now that Barty has won a second major. Osaka has four of those big trophies, but Barty has clearly shown she can thrive on all three surfaces, not just one. The counterpoint for Osaka is that most of modern tennis played on hardcourts, right or wrong, and she owns the sport’s primary surface.

At any rate, Barty-Osaka is a fascinating debate. Yet, while interesting, I find the debate suddenly simplified after Wimbledon and not overly nuanced. Barty has majors on the two organic surfaces, while Osaka has won the last two hardcourt majors and four of the last six.

It seems to me that “best player in the world” goes to the one who can begin to make a bigger dent on the other’s turf, or accumulate trophies on her own preferred surface (if not both).

While we consider the Barty-Osaka debate, let me say this two months before we crown a U.S. Open champion on the second weekend of September: If you were to ask me right now who will win the tournament, not knowing what the draw looks like, I would say that neither Barty nor Osaka will win in New York.

My reasoning: Osaka used last year’s pandemic disruption to mentally refresh herself. She was injured in 2019 at the U.S. Open after going through the grind of a full season. Not having that grind — and unpleasant experiences on clay and grass — left her ready for summer hardcourt tennis and put her in an ideal position to thrive in New York.

This year, Osaka’s lack of play at Roland Garros and Wimbledon emerged for a very different reason: not the pandemic, but holistic wellness. She offered a candid admission about her struggles with depression. She has a lot to process. Yes, it’s not as though she wasn’t wrestling with this problem a year ago when she won in New York, but going through a very public process changes the nature of a human being’s struggles. If Osaka was refreshed by the pandemic interruption last summer, this build-up to the 2021 U.S. Open doesn’t seem remotely close to her 2020 journey. I wouldn’t expect Osaka’s best tennis to emerge, though a four-time major champion could obviously prove me wrong.

As for Ash Barty, she stated that her Wimbledon victory — and her mere ability to even play the tournament — after the injuries she sustained during clay season represented a “miracle.”

Given that reality, plus the fact that Barty has been road-tripping the past several months without returning home to Australia, it seems highly unlikely she will find the fire or fuel to win seven matches in New York. She emptied the tank at Wimbledon and has fulfilled a childhood dream. This is a magnificent feat. Barty would trade absolutely nothing in the world for it… but it certainly means that the combination of hunger and brilliance needed to win a major is not likely to emerge for her in New York. It would be surprising if she managed to take home the trophy.

Barty and Osaka, or the field? Give me the field in New York… which leads me to the central tension point I’m most interested in as the hardcourt summer arrives:

Will we see a first-time major winner, or will we see a multiple major winner add to her collection?

You might be asking, “Why exclude one-time major winners?” Fair question.

That is certainly notable, but in tennis, players who win one major usually win a second one. This isn’t guaranteed, but it is the normal course of tennis cycles. Iga Swiatek will win a second major — how many people doubt that? Bianca Andreescu, IF HEALTHY, should win a second major. Sloane Stephens is the really fascinating player with only one major. I can’t say with certainty she will win a second, though the potential is certainly there. The point remains: Players with one major usually win a second. It’s an interesting point of focus, but not nearly as interesting as the two groups I mentioned above.

The players with two majors trying to get to three are the ones who really interest me, along with players trying to break through and win their first, such as Aryna Sabalenka and Karolina Pliskova, who put themselves in the center of the conversation at Wimbledon.

Barty’s second major title creates a group of five WTA players who can still reasonably expect to compete for a third major:

Barty, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, and Simona Halep.

Svetlana Kuznetsova is also the owner of two majors, but her competitive phase as a contender for major titles is — if not done — certainly harder to imagine.

Barty, Vika, Petra, Muguruza, and Halep are all trying to get past the major title count they currently have, and which past greats such as Mary Pierce, Li Na, and Amelie Mauresmo attained. Naomi Osaka zoomed to a four-major count. Angelique Kerber has managed to win three majors, and she nearly claimed a fourth at Wimbledon.

Will we see the U.S. Open crown one of these double major champions for a third time? When trying to figure out how these various players stack up against each other in a larger historical context, getting a third major carries a lot of weight in the discussion. It isn’t the only consideration, but it certainly is a big one. That’s a drama I’m eager to follow in New York and into 2022. It’s a more layered one than the Barty-Osaka question I alluded to earlier in this piece.

If a two-time major champion doesn’t win in New York, then, will another first-time major champion be crowned?

Serena Williams’ motherhood represents a line of demarcation between a previous period in women’s tennis and the current one in which we reside. Through Serena’s 2017 Australian Open title, she could be counted on to win at least one major per year. While her competitors weren’t always the same in big tournaments, a small group of players formed a collective, for lack of a better term, in major semifinals or finals in a five-year stretch preceding her maternity leave in 2017. These players met Serena at least twice in the semis or final of a major from 2012 through  2016: Aga Radwanska, Kerber, Maria Sharapova, Azarenka, and Muguruza. WTA players were more able to replicate results at big tournaments than in the current (post-Serena maternity) period.

In 2019 and 2021, the first 12 major semifinalists of the year in women’s tennis (Australia through Wimbledon) were unique. Not one major semifinalist was replicated. In 2019, Serena and Elina Svitolina became — at that year’s U.S. Open — the only two women to make more than one major semifinal in a year. That’s not what we saw from 2012 through 2016.

Will we see a Barbora Krejcikova-style champion at this U.S. Open? Will we see a promising high seed such as Sabalenka — clearly possessing the firepower and shotmaking needed to win — finally break through? Or, will we see one of the two-time major champions plant her feet in the cement and say “ENOUGH!”, getting to that third major Kerber owns?

From 2017 through 2019 (Sloane, Osaka, Andreescu), the U.S. Open crowned a first-time major champion. In 2020, Osaka planted her feet and won a third major. Will one of these two scenarios emerge in 2021, and if so, which one?

This is where the intrigue in women’s tennis lies heading into the hardcourt summer and the U.S. Open. The lead-up events might flesh out which player is more (or less) likely to make a big forward step in a very fluid women’s tennis landscape.

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