The most recognizable and emotional crowning moments of a tennis year are the prestigious singles finals, especially at the majors. Glittering trophies are presented in front of large stadium audiences and big groups of photographers. The athletes who win have attained life-changing or season-making moments.
These are the occasions we most vividly remember.
Canadians will remember where they were when Bianca Andreescu won the U.S. Open. Romanians will remember where they were when Simona Halep won Wimbledon.
Australians will remember where they were when Ashleigh Barty won Roland Garros. Japanese tennis fans will remember where they were when Naomi Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 Australian Open championships.
It isn’t as natural for any tennis fan to look at a round-of-64 match at a non-major tournament (even a Premier Mandatory) as a seminal tennis occurrence.
Yet, do we realize just how earth-shaking it is that Karolina Pliskova lost to Jelena Ostapenko on Saturday in Beijing at the China Open?
The immediate point of awareness you probably have — which is entirely germane to this situation — is that Pliskova will lose points from her 2018 Beijing result. With plenty of points to defend over the next month, Pliskova’s chances of overtaking Barty for year-end No. 1 took a big hit.
Osaka, who is also in the hunt for year-end No. 1, defeated Jessica Pegula in round one in Beijing on Sunday. She will have to make the final to register a point pickup from 2018, when she reached the semis at the China Open. She will need to win the China Open to significantly improve her odds of passing Barty.
You know these things… but do you know how much this Pliskova loss has reshaped the landscape and set the stage for the creation of an enormous piece of history?
A total of 27 players have been WTA World No. 1 since rankings were first kept. Nearly half of them — 13 — have been year-end World No. 1 players.
Only 13? Well, when you realize that Steffi Graf was year-end No. 1 eight times, Martina Navratilova was YE No. 1 seven times, and that Chris Evert and Serena Williams were YE No. 1 five times, that’s 25 years accounted for by four players. The other nine year-end No. 1 players accounted for 20 other years.
This is a VERY select group of players.
You might be asking, “Matt, dammit, what’s the supreme and seismic component of history Pliskova’s loss has made a lot more probable? SPILL IT! REVEAL THE ANSWER!”
Okay. I will.
The common thread of the 13 year-end World No. 1 WTA players dating back to Chris Evert in 1975 (the first such player) is that they all came from the United States or Europe.
Yes, Osaka has been World No. 1, but not year-end No. 1 last year. Simona Halep earned that distinction.
Yes, Barty and fellow Australian Evonne Goolagong have been World No. 1… but not year-end No. 1.
The damaging loss by Pliskova in round one in Beijing has greatly increased the chances that for the first time in nearly half a century of women’s tennis, the year-end World No. 1 WTA player will come from a continent other than Europe and a country other than the United States.
Japan (less likely) or Australia (more likely) will get to celebrate a year-end No. 1 tennis player, a point of enormous pride should either nation claim the honor… and also a sign of the sport’s growth and expansion across the globe.
Czech tennis fans and Pliskova fans will lament this development. Yet, what is one athlete’s loss is another’s gain… and the gain of either Ash Barty or Naomi Osaka would bring with it an unforgettable moment in the history of women’s tennis.
A round-of-64 match at a non-major tournament in China carried that much weight and significance?
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