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Guadala-Who-What?

One plot point worth following every tennis season is whether the post-U.S. Open period contains substantial relevance for the following year and potentially beyond. After the Open, some of the elite players take more time off to downshift for the year-end championships and the offseason. A lot of other players who pushed themselves through the hardcourt summer, or who had a generally heavy workload for most of the year, are — if not spent — certainly less energetic. Any hunger they might have is accompanied by fatigue.

From late September through early November, there is usually someone — often more than one — who enters tournaments having played comparatively less tennis than a lot of peers on tour. Players who did not achieve richly, or who can snag the eighth and final spot in the year-end championships, or who simply have a lot of fuel left in the tank, can attack the post-U.S. Open part of the calendar with vigor, sharpness, and general quality. This might apply in an absolute sense; it definitely applies on a comparative level.

The busiest four months in the tennis year range from mid-May’s Madrid Open through the end of the U.S. Open in mid-September. Those four months require so much from tour pros — three surfaces, three of the year’s four majors, four 1,000-point tournaments, almost entirely in hot weather conditions — that the autumn portion of the calendar simply isn’t going to bring forth the same competitive dynamic. Every match contains points (well, except Wimbledon this year… I digress), and every tournament contains a prize. Someone has to win it. Autumnal tennis is therefore a huge opportunity for plenty of pros to salvage or boost their season.

Last year, Anett Kontaveit, Garbine Muguruza, and Paula Badosa did this better than anyone else on the WTA Tour. Badosa won the October iteration of Indian Wells, and Kontaveit surged into the WTA Finals. Muguruza walked away with the Guadalajara championship, beating Kontaveit in the final after Badosa, exhausted, ran out of steam in the semifinals.

Let’s make this point before going further: Badosa can say that her 2022 was knocked off track by an injury. She had to retire from her Roland Garros third-round match, which was an enormously painful moment, given the opportunity that event represented for her. She rebounded to produce a solid fourth-round showing at Wimbledon, and in March, she went deep in both Indian Wells and Miami. Badosa has achieved a modest amount of success, and that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps it is the case that her 2023 can become what Iga Swiatek’s 2022 has been: a big year following a lot of bumps and bruises the previous season. Maybe Badosa is learning lessons now which can be applied next year. Fair enough.

For Muguruza and Kontaveit, however, there is no similar story to tell.

These two Guadalajara stars have labored through an abysmal 2022. Early exits at tournaments were regular occurrences well before they crashed out of Cincinnati.

Muguruza will usually awaken at a 1,000-pointer or a major at some point in the middle third of the year. This year that has not happened. Kontaveit carried her 2021 form through January and February of this year, and hasn’t done much of anything since then.

Badosa, Kontaveit, and Muguruza were all seeded in the top 8 in Cincinnati and didn’t last very long. Badosa, Kontaveit, and Maria Sakkari occupied top-5 seeding positions in Ohio, but none of them were regarded as top-tier threats to win the title. None of them played like top-tier threats.

Autumn tennis and the Guadalajara finale to the 2021 WTA season presented fresh plot points and ascendant performers. We all wondered whether those stories would gain traction in 2022.

Maybe the U.S. Open (which does figure to be highly unpredictable) will change the way we view this topic, but heading into New York, what happened in Guadalajara has stayed there.

We’ll see if those 2021 stories catch a last-minute flight to the Big Apple.

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