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SHIFTING SANDS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

It was — past tense — one of the most fascinating streaks in tennis while it lasted.

From the 2013 Wimbledon tournament through the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, at least one first-time WTA major semifinalist emerged from the chaos of the first five rounds of the draw. That’s 17 straight events with new semifinalists at the most important stops on the calendar, a partial product of the injuries and off-court disruptions affecting Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. First-time major semifinalists needed to avoid being placed in Serena Williams’s quarter, and when given that bracket break, they took advantage.

When players reach the lofty height of a major semifinal, the hope that they will build on the achievement is — if not universal — certainly pervasive. The athletes obviously want to validate their results, but fans and even hard-edged journalists (who are not supposed to cheer from the press box) also want to witness feel-good stories. (If journalists do root for anything in tennis or any sport, they root not for the individual so much as a good story to write or broadcast.)

These 17 major tournaments produced 19 first-time major semifinalists. These 19 players have, in some cases, built on the achievement. Four of the 19 — Flavia Pennetta, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, and Jelena Ostapenko — won major titles after making this list. Five others — Eugenie Bouchard, Lucie Safarova, Madison Keys, Roberta Vinci, and Karolina Pliskova — made their first major final after making this list. That means nine of the players mentioned took another step higher after joining this “Gang of 19.”

Of the 10 players not mentioned above, six — Kirsten Flipkens, Kiki Bertens, Elena Vesnina, Peng Shuai, Andrea Petkovic, and Magdalena Rybarikova — have not returned to a major semifinal. (The other four who did return to a major semi: Timea Bacsinszky, Ekaterina Makarova, Jo Konta, and CoCo Vandeweghe.)

In some way, then, 13 of the 19 players on this list did something tangible and significant to build on their respective breakthroughs. That’s impressive.

What tempers that statement: The reality that improvements or consolidations of gains haven’t usually lasted very long.

Muguruza won two majors after making this list of 19. Halep, currently the best player in the world, has reached three major finals in the last five major tournaments. These two players have soared.

Of the other 11 players who in some way built on their first major semifinal, Pennetta and Vinci have retired. Bouchard, Makarova, Safarova, Pliskova, Ostapenko and Vandeweghe made their improvements/consolidations within the next 12 months after their initial achievements. Keys and Bacsinszky have made subsequent major semifinals at least 24 months after their first. Konta made a second major semifinal more than 17 months after her first. All told, four players — Muguruza and Halep in particular, Keys and Bacsinszky to lesser degrees — have been able to remain relevant for at least two years after making this 19-player group, and Bacsinszky is currently being buried by injuries.

This exploration of 19 first-time major semifinalists from 17 consecutive women’s major tournaments shows that while 13 of 19 players built on their achievement, those houses have stood on shifting sands with the exception of four players, two most of all.

You might think that in light of this portrait of instability, the parade of first-time major semifinalists is continuing.

Surprise!

At the just-concluded French Open, no new semifinalist emerged. Yulia Putintseva fell one step short of becoming that player against Keys. Daria Kasatkina similarly fell one stop before the semis against Sloane Stephens. In two of the last three women’s majors, no new semifinalist has been produced. Elise Mertens at the 2018 Australian Open is the one player who has broken through in the past three women’s majors.

Is this a temporary development or a sign of a certain degree of stasis in women’s tennis?

It’s way too soon to answer that question… but the point which emerges from the question is intriguing enough: With the sands of time shifting so quickly in women’s tennis, no one should feel too comfortable in predicting what will happen at Wimbledon and, for that matter, the U.S. Open.

Image source – Jimmie 48

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