AO 23 Australian Open

Beatriz Haddad Maia and tennis limbo

Remember when Beatriz Haddad Maia got on a roll last summer and made the final in Canada? A lot of people were high on her heading into the U.S. Open, viewing her as a top-tier threat to cause trouble in the bracket and make a deep run.

Was that line of thought reasonable? Yes it was. I’m not here to say or suggest it wasn’t. The instructive point about Haddad Maia — which is hardly limited to her — is that on a WTA Tour with so much quality depth and parity in a new landscape without Serena Williams, Ash Barty, or (this year) Naomi Osaka, it has become very hard to calibrate assessments of which players are ready to lift their careers and change their reputations and identities.

When I refer to this notion of “lifting a career,” I am not speaking about the temporary boost of a one- or two-month run; I’m referring to the ability to entrench oneself in the top tier of the sport — maybe not for several years, but at least a 12-month period.

This notion does not properly apply to someone such as Anett Kontaveit, who stockpiled a ton of points based on a late fall-season run in 2021 but was not a top-tier performer at the majors or the 1,000-point events in 2022. She had a No. 2 seed at tournaments for a good portion of the season based on a ranking built from her autumn magic the year before. Kontaveit was not a strong 12-month player; her lofty ranking did not match what we were seeing on the ground each week, each month, each season, each tour stop.

The great players make a long-term home at the top, but beneath them are players who manage to emerge from obscurity or parity (if not both) and — while not being fixtures in the top tier of the sport — are able to stick around for more than a minute, more than a fleeting period of time based on two months worth of tournaments.

This is the challenge: How do we know when two months are likely going to build into something bigger, or when it’s a brief hot streak which — while valuable to be sure (points, paychecks, prestige) — doesn’t become something more? On a fluid tour, this calibration is extremely difficult to make.

Beatriz Haddad Maia isn’t the poster child for this, but she is certainly one of several representative examples one could cite.

Haddad Maia was excused from the 2023 Australian Open in Round 1 by Nuria Parrizas Diaz in straight sets. It was a quiet result overshadowed by Rafael Nadal’s and Bianca Andreescu’s losses, but it certainly underscored the difficulty of knowing when a player’s emergence is temporary or the start of a longer period of prosperity.

Barbora Krejcikova took what was a two-month hot streak and turned it into a Roland Garros championship and a few other commendable results. Krejcikova didn’t dazzle in 2022, but her efforts gained her more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame. How do we know when a player’s rise is going to lead to something remarkable, as opposed to something impressive but comparatively more fleeting? It’s one of the great challenges of tennis analysis on the current WTA Tour.

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