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Women’s tennis keeps winning in unexpected ways

I have said several times in recent years that it would be great for women’s tennis if the sport generated an elite rivalry with traction and staying power at the biggest events on tour.

Ash Barty versus Naomi Osaka would be a great matchup in major finals. What if they met at the Australian or U.S. Open at least once per year?

If we don’t have two players regularly meeting in major semifinals or finals, we could at least have one player who is consistently in major finals, and who therefore becomes a media-magnet figure in the sport. Osaka has somewhat filled this role, but only at hardcourt majors and not throughout whole tennis seasons at the Big Four events.

Serena Williams was this figure in women’s tennis through 2019 at the U.S. Open. She definitely brought people to the sport and kept people interested in the sport with her brilliance, her pursuit of history, and her compelling presence.

Yet, we know that for the most part, the past four years — after Serena became a mother — have been marked by remarkable fluidity and unpredictability in women’s tennis. In both 2019 and 2021, only two players made more than one major semifinal, and neither of those players won a major. (In 2019, Serena was one of those two players.)

At the 2020 French Open, qualifier Nadia Podoroska made the semifinals. At the 2021 U.S. Open, a qualifier won the whole thing. The 2021 U.S. Open women’s final had the World No. 150 player against the World No. 73.

One might think this landscape is not conducive to growth and popularity among fans… and yet the truth is that this was one of the best women’s majors we’ve seen. So many dramatic matches with compelling tennis defined this women’s tournament. The women’s final between those two teenagers — champion Emma Raducanu and runner-up Leylah Fernandez — was a high-level match with supreme skill. It is worthy of being in the same discussion as the 2020 U.S. Open final between champion Naomi Osaka and runner-up Victoria Azarenka.

The hope among many fans — and Lawn Tennis Association and Tennis Canada executives — is that Raducanu-Fernandez becomes the blockbuster rivalry of the next 15 years. Obviously, it would still be great if a rivalry caught fire at the majors.

Yet, I find myself at the end of 2021 (at the majors) noticing that the lack of a rivalry really hasn’t hurt women’s tennis that much — certainly much less than I expected a few years ago. There was not a big “rivalry” match at this tournament, and yet the matches were compelling and interesting, one after another.

Stephens-Kerber.

Sakkari-Andreescu.

Halep-Rybakina.

Barty-Rogers.

All of Fernandez’s matches from the third round onward.

Not all of them were GREAT matches, to be sure, but all of them were great entertainment with the winning players finding ways to solve problems under pressure. What a terrific tournament… and it didn’t need a rivalry.

Women’s tennis lacks that Chris-Martina or Steffi-Monica or Serena-Venus or Serena-Henin showcase matchup which would indeed be wonderful to have… but after the 2021 U.S. Open, we have been shown that the sport doesn’t HAVE to have a huge rivalry to thrive…

and produce high-quality tennis.

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