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Swiatek, Krejcikova lose, setting up a fascinating future

Women’s tennis is interesting, period. It’s a fascinating theater of activity in which the quality of play is regularly strong and the drama of matches is consistently compelling. The U.S. Open was magnificent. Even though one player ranked outside the top 70 faced another player outside the top 140 in the U.S. Open final, the match attained a high level of quality. Rankings didn’t tell the story of how well Leylah Fernandez and champion Emma Raducanu played.

Women’s tennis has shown it doesn’t need its semifinalists or finalists at big tournaments to be ranked in the top five in order to deliver first-rate entertainment and quality competition.

Yet, it’s unavoidable for commentators and writers to continue to wonder: What if a few players begin to stick around at the top — not in terms of rankings, but in terms of being there in the semis and final of multiple major tournaments each year?

In 2018, Simona Halep and Serena Williams both made two major finals. Since then, it has become harder for players to make two major finals in the same year. In 2019, only Serena made two major finals. No one else in women’s tennis did. In 2020, Sofia Kenin pulled off the feat. In 2021, no one did.

In 2019 and 2021, only two women made more than one major semifinal. Only one of those four women (Serena in 2019) advanced to a major final.

Women’s tennis is great, deep, and entertaining. It is doing fine, thank you very much, and represents a quality product. Yet, what if a few players managed to cross the threshold and become players who are able to reach the latter stages of at least two if not three major semifinals each year?

One player achieving this would give the sport a higher-visibility star who becomes the target for everyone else. That’s a compelling storyline to bring to future major tournaments.

Two or more players achieving this would produce what past eras of women’s tennis were regularly able to deliver for varying periods of time: rivalries, the sweet nectar of sports which create more indelible and lasting memories, the kinds of experiences fans crave.

Margaret vs. Billie Jean.

Chris vs. Martina.

Chris vs. Tracy.

Chris vs. Hana.

Hana vs. Martina.

Martina vs. Steffi.

Steffi vs. Monica.

Venus vs. Serena.

Venus vs. Hingis.

Venus vs. Lindsay.

Serena vs. Justine.

Serena vs. Kim.

Serena vs. Maria (lopsided, yes, but still a big draw for fans and TV).

Serena vs. Vika.

Serena vs. Angie.

Simona vs. Sloane.

Through 2018, there was at least one top-tier matchup on tour which occurred with some degree of regularity at important tournaments, usually though not always at majors. (Simona-Sloane met in a Roland Garros final but didn’t gain all that much traction at majors. They did meet in a Montreal final which was also compelling. It offered a taste of what could have been if they had continued to meet in big finals.)

From 2019 and onward, there hasn’t been a big-stage matchup which has involved recurring meetings at the biggest tournaments. The tennis has been very good and sometimes great, but the magnetism and drama attached to a rivalry have not yet emerged. Many fans of women’s tennis — thoroughly in love with a quality product as they should be — would still like to see a rivalry sprout up, or if not that, a player who begins to gain traction at a higher level.

Naomi Osaka versus Ashleigh Barty is a natural choice for an emergent rivalry, if they could ever meet in a major final or semifinal. Barty and Aryna Sabalenka met several times in 1,000 or 500-point tournaments in 2021, but haven’t taken their compelling matchup to the major-tournament stage.

Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez obviously created the hope among many fans that they will form the next great rivalry in women’s tennis. If they do, they will become huge draws as their careers unfold.

Precisely because of the great depth in the sport, women’s tennis offers so many interesting and worthwhile candidates for the “next level” status which will create traction at the top of the sport. That staying power is the source of rivalries and the recurring battles which have made the past 17 years of men’s tennis so irresistible.

Everyone can make his or her own choice as the most interesting women’s tennis players of 2022. There is no right or wrong choice. Everyone will select players based on their own tastes and inclinations.

I can only speak for myself in saying that Iga Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova are my two most interesting players of 2022. They both lost in Indian Wells, which means their offseasons are now very close, their preparations for the coming year more of a genuine discussion point.

Swiatek, still only 20, is well ahead of schedule in her career. Let’s be clear about that. She hasn’t fallen behind in 2021. She has had a normal — and still reasonably good — tennis year for someone so young. She made the fourth round or better at all four majors. She improved her ranking. She made the Roland Garros quarterfinals. She has played and won stacks of doubles matches. She is learning how to carry herself as a pro.

The tour fought back after Swiatek won Roland Garros without dropping a set or even needing a tiebreaker in any of her 14 sets in Paris. That was an outlier event, but it demonstrated how devastating Swiatek can be on clay when she is locked in. 2021 was always going to be a rough ride after that magical Roland Garros romp.

In 2022, we get to see how much Swiatek has learned from this year and how well she is able to adjust. I can’t wait.

Barbora Krejcikova — like Swiatek, a Roland Garros champion — won 29 of 32 matches at one point this season. It took eventual Wimbledon champion Ash Barty to knock her out of Wimbledon. It took a top-three player, Sabalenka, to bump her out of the U.S. Open. Krejcikova’s loss at Indian Wells doesn’t undo the great work she has done in 2021. It does, however, reinforce the point that as great as Krejcikova has been, it remains a challenge for top women’s players to regularly plant themselves in the semifinal or final rounds of many top tournaments.

Barty did this the best of anyone on the WTA Tour in 2021, and even then, Ash didn’t make multiple major semifinals. The depth and quality of the tour make it legitimately hard for players to stack together top-tier results. Pandemic conditions and limitations have also played a role in shaping that reality.

Krejcikova is fascinating to me because, unlike Swiatek, she is in her mid-20s. She will be 26 when she competes in the 2022 Australian Open. She doesn’t have the luxury of a “learning year” as Swiatek does.

Swiatek shouldn’t be expected to figure everything out in 2022, only to show signs of growth and build for a 2023 season in which all the pieces might fit together and create a launch point for the Pole’s promising career.

Krejcikova, on the other hand, needs to use 2022 as a time to strike while the iron is hot and translate her emergence into sustained quality. If she was able to win 29 of 32 matches in 2021, there’s no reason she can’t make two major semifinals in 2022 and use her court craft and doubles instincts to become a complete player who has many different ways to win matches. Barty has already constructed that template. Krejcikova, if she wants to elevate the stature of her career, can’t allow 2022 to be a comedown year. If she gets trampled by the tour, it will be harder to build back in 2023 as she moves into her late 20s…

and players such as Iga Swiatek being on the verge of entering their primes.

Women’s tennis is in great shape, and it should be a ton of fun in 2022… but if rivalries are going to form and traction is going to emerge at the top of the sport, Swiatek and Krejcikova are two players I will be keeping an eye on.

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