Barty leaves, and chaos intensifies

Even if Ashleigh Barty had not retired from tennis, the first Thursday of play at the 2022 Miami Open might have been supremely chaotic on the women’s side.

The obvious point to make, though, is that with Barty now removed from the WTA Tour, we seem to be at a fork-in-the-road moment for the 2022 season.

Will Iga Swiatek, reigning champion of Indian Wells and clearly the sport’s most ascendant female tennis player, fill the position Barty occupied, or is all hell going to break loose on a tour which now lack’s Barty’s dependable, anchoring presence as World No. 1?

Aryna Sabalenka, Anett Kontaveit, and Karolina Pliskova — all top-6 seeds — crashed out of Miami on Thursday, failing to make points gains on a tour where Barty’s hefty lead for World No. 1 no longer exists. The parity among all non-Barty players has been so pronounced that Swiatek — with three strong months of tennis to start 2022 — jumped up to No. 2 and is poised to be No. 1 on Monday.

Let’s also note that Sabalenka, Kontaveit, and Pliskova did not lose to frontline title contenders (or even semifinal contenders) in Miami. Irina-Camelia Begu is a solid pro, but not a top-30 pro. Neither are Ann Li or Anna Kalinskaya. Yet, they beat top-6 seeds in a tennis version of March Madness.

The Kontaveit loss is especially conspicuous since Kontaveit’s meteoric rankings rise came through a post-U.S. Open “autumn push.” We see it every year from at least one player, a fresh-legged charge through tournaments when many other players are punched out for the year and are drifting into their upcoming offseason break. Kontaveit has not done anything to suggest that she will maintain her place in the top 10 this year.

It’s a vacuum. Who will fill it, and will we see the entirety of the top 10 engage in musical chairs this year? Or, will Swiatek and (when summer hardcourt season arrives) Naomi Osaka tower over the tour?

Ash Barty leaves behind a fun and entertaining WTA Tour. How that tour responds to this power vacuum is one of the main stories to watch as the 2022 women’s tennis season unfolds.

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