Wimbledon 2021

It took only 4 days for the women’s Australian Open to send a message

In only four days, the women’s Australian Open has sent a message: Stability and regularity of results — with the same faces making the latter stages of the biggest tournaments — are still largely elusive.

Yes, Naomi Osaka or Ashleigh Barty — whoever emerges from the top section of the draw — will probably compete for the title. To that extent, there is some degree of predictability in this tournament. However, on a broader level, the first four days in Melbourne Park have given us two larger facts:

  1. The two players who met in the WTA Finals championship match are out of the Australian Open.
  2. The two players who met in the U.S. Open final are also out.

Anett Kontaveit, Garbine Muguruza, Emma Raducanu, and Leylah Fernandez have all been ushered out of Australia before the third round. What happened in September in New York and in November in Guadalajara feel like lightning bolts more than established weather patterns.

If we are to continue to use a weather-based analogy and apply it to women’s tennis, the familiar expression “Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes” seems apt at the moment.

I hasten to say that this lack of instability doesn’t mean or imply that the quality has been poor. Anything but. Clara Tauson was magnificent in dismantling Kontaveit on Wednesday, and Alize Cornet exploited Muguruza’s weaknesses in a routine win which increased the Frenchwoman’s dominance of that head-to-head matchup. Those results were legitimate demonstrations of tennis acumen and superiority by players who executed their game plans to perfection.

Phrased differently: The winners claimed their victories more than they were handed a win in an error-strewn match. That is a fundamental marker of quality, as opposed to winning ugly.

Sometimes, players play bad matches and still win. This was not that. Tauson and Cornet needed to flourish in order to prevail. They did. That’s quality, and it’s what WTA tennis has provided since Serena Williams became a mother. The tour might not have any rivalries with staying power in the championship stages of huge tournaments, but as I keep saying, that lack of a big rivalry — a Chris-Martina for the 2020s — is not preventing women’s tennis from being a high-level product.

Nevertheless, we do keep wondering in the tennis community if women’s tennis will settle into a new period of stability. It’s a story worth monitoring on its own merits and its own terms.

Four days into the first big tournament of 2022, it’s clear that stability will have to wait. The WTA Finals and U.S. Open already feel like distant memories.

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