20-somethings reign in women’s tennis

Let’s take a look at what happened during the first three tumultuous months and what could happen for the rest of 2018.

Never before has women’s tennis boasted more depth outside the top-10 and more parity inside it.   -  WTA ( Twitter)

The young and the restless have taken over the women’s game. So many, in fact, have divvied up all the titles that no one can claim supremacy. Four different women have won the last four majors since Queen Serena abdicated her throne for marriage and motherhood. Three other women have reached the finals at the two Premier Mandatory Events so far in 2018.

Never before has women’s tennis boasted more depth outside the top-10 and more parity inside it. That makes it likely no player will dominate and some new and exciting faces — possibly even a terrific teenager like Amanda Anisimova — will make tennis history this year, as Jelena Ostapenko did last year.

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Let’s take a look at what happened during the first three tumultuous months and what could happen for the rest of 2018.

Caroline Wozniacki

Grade: A

Caroline Wozniacki, of Denmark, returns a shot from Monica Puig, of Puerto Rico, at the Miami Open tennis tournament Friday, March 23, 2018, in Key Biscayne, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)   -  AP

She proved it’s never too late to get out of your comfort zone and play a new bold way. At 27, the persevering Dane won her first Grand Slam title in her 43rd attempt at the Australian Open. She did it by adding more power to her serve and forehand to complement her relentless consistency and dogged defence. Wozniacki beat only one top-20 player, but it was No. 1 Simona Halep in a high-calibre, entertaining, and unpredictable 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 final.

“Winning is an absolute dream come true,” the ecstatic Wozniacki told the crowd afterwards. “The fairytale continues for us, for me, it’s incredible.”

Not surprisingly, Woz suffered a letdown after taking the tournament of her life. She lost twice to Daria Kasatkina and once to Monica Puig, though she did reach the Doha semifinals. If she keeps her foot on the offensive accelerator and continues to hit timely aces — she smacked a surprisingly high 83 in the first three months — she’ll continue to contend strongly at the majors.

Simona Halep

Grade: A-

Simona Halep, of Romania, returns a shot against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during the semifinals at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, Friday, March 16, 2018, in Indian Wells, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)   -  AP

Before the Australian Open, she said, “My dream is to win a Grand Slam.” After her dream was dashed, once again, in her third major final in a heartbreaking 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 loss to Wozniacki, Halep accentuated the positive: “I didn’t believe that I could go through all these matches. Most days my ankle was hurting so bad I couldn’t practice more than 10 or 15 minutes. So it looks like I have enough inside power to fight with everything and that’s a good thing. This tournament meant a lot for me.”

Indeed, the 26-year-old Romanian showed the physical toughness and newfound mental resilience she’ll need to win a Grand Slam title. She should follow the example set by Wozniacki, another natural baseliner. If the speedy Halep increases her firepower, the breakthrough could happen soon enough at Roland Garros, where she has lost close finals to Maria Sharapova in 2014 and Ostapenko in 2017.

Sloane Stephens

Grade: B+

United States' Sloane Stephens returns a ball to France's Kristina Mladenovic during her Fed Cup semifinal singles tennis match, in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, Sunday, April 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)   -  AP

The next time she tells the anxious media to chill out, they better listen up. No matter how deeply she’s mired in a slump. After Stephens served for the match at 5-4 in the second set but was upset 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 by China’s 34th-ranked Shuai Zhang at the Australian Open for her eighth straight first-round loss, she calmly explained, “Tennis is definitely a roller-coaster, but I have learned to just not panic. I’m not going to dwell on it just because I’ve lost eight matches in a row and say ‘winning the U.S. Open, it’s haunting me now.’”

Still, Chris Evert, a former superstar and now ESPN analyst, worried and wondered: “I question whether she has a burning desire to win more Grand Slams or be No. 1. I don’t see it as much as I do with other players. I don’t know what’s going on with Sloane.”

Two months later, the woman with the biggest smile in tennis had plenty to smile about. She captured the Miami Open, her first Premier Mandatory tournament. Her last four victims: former Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko. Regaining her U.S. Open intensity and clever counter-punching, Stephens ran her career record in finals to a perfect 6-0. As ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez noted, “She’s willing [now] to play every point like it’s a big point.”

Naomi Osaka

Grade: B+

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, returns a shot to Daria Kasatkina, of Russia, in the women's final at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament Sunday, March 18, 2018, in Indian Wells, Calif. Osaka won 6-3, 6-2. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)   -  AP

Unlike Stephens, the normally effervescent Osaka has found the stress of great expectations almost unbearable. Just 19 days after fast-rising Osaka sensationally won the BNP Paribas Open with victories over Maria Sharapova, Agnieszska Radwanska, Karolina Pliskova, Halep and Kasatkina, she poured out her anguished 20-year-old heart at a Volvo Car Open press conference in Charleston.

“This started yesterday. I woke up and I was really depressed. I don’t know why,” Osaka confided following her loss to Julia Goerges. “I am so sad right now. I hear your questions, but I’m not really paying attention too much. I’m really not paying attention to anything. I’m super tired all the time, and I feel like everything’s gone by really quickly.”

Osaka is hardly the first player to struggle after winning a big, life-changing title. That the heavy-hitting Japanese has enough game to overpower anyone is unquestioned. Perhaps a short break from competition is the elixir she needs now. Let’s hope this sparkling talent gets the help she needs to improve her outlook.

Petra Kvitova

Grade: B-

Czech Republic's Petra Kvitova returns a shot to Germany's Angelique Kerber during their match of the tennis Fed Cup semifinal, between Germany and Czech Republic, in Stuttgart, Germany, Sunday, April 22, 2018. (Marijan Murat/dpa via AP)   -  AP

“You never know what you’re going to get with Petra Kvitova,” said Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin. “She’ll always be up and down.” Kvitova was sky high at Doha, topping No. 3 Svitolina, No. 10 Goerges, No. 1 Wozniacki, and No. 4 Muguruza for the title. The 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon champion also captured St. Petersburg (Russia) with wins over Ostapenko and Georges.

But the 6’ Czech power hitter bottomed out in the three biggest tournaments. Kvitova was upset by No. 98 Andrea Petkovic in the Australian Open first round and teenager Anisimova in the India Wells third round. Kvitova was then defeated by Ostapenko in the Miami fourth round. Her outstanding 9-1 record in three-set matches bodes well for the rest of the year when she’ll need “Courage. Belief. Pojd [Come on].”— the words printed on the T-shirts her team wore during her comeback tournament at Roland Garros last year.

Daria Kasatkina

Grade: B

Although she suffered bad, early-round losses to Magda Linette (Australian Open), Kaia Kanepi (Brisbane), Barbora Strycova (Sydney), Catherine Bellis (Doha), and Sofia Kenin (Miami), she shined at two important tournaments.

The highly motivated 20-year-old with a beguiling blend of Martina Hingis’ versatility and Agnieszka’s finesse reached the Indian Wells final. She took out Grand Slam titlists Stephens, Wozniacki, Kerber, and Venus Williams, in an epic 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 semifinal. Kasatkina also made the Dubai final where she defeated Radwanska, Johanna Konta and Muguruza before succumbing to Svitolina.

Kasatkina’s mantra is “Believe in your dreams.” Whether she achieves them or not, this Russian with a personality as charmingly unpredictable as her game will be delightful to watch.

Elina Svitolina

Grade: B-

She has won her last seven finals and improved her ranking seven straight years. She’s beaten almost all the top players, and at No. 4 in the world, she’s Ukraine’s highest-ranked player in WTA history. So what’s missing for the 23-year-old all-court competitor? A Grand Slam title. Surprisingly, she hasn’t even reached a major semifinal.

“The great thing about Svitolina is that she is so fast she can play different ways,” said former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “She can play consistently or aggressively.” This year the attractive 5’9” blonde has improved her service accuracy and has competed with more joy.

Unfortunately, all these assets have yet to yield results at the main events. Elina was upset by No. 37 Elise Mertens at the Aussie Open and No. 27 Carla Suarez Navarro at Indian Wells, and beaten by Ostapenko at Miami.

Perhaps the tiger tattoo she sports on her thigh will inspire Svitolina to become a predator at the majors where heavy hitters have predominated this century.

Danielle Collins

Grade: B-

Collins, who had a career breakthrough during a memorable March, is no junior prodigy. In fact, this rare bird is a college graduate — she twice won the NCAA title at the University of Virginia. If 24-year-old Collins was starstruck when playing her idol Venus Williams at the Miami Open, she sure didn’t show it. The American qualifier shocked the American idol 6-2, 6-3. “She played very well and aggressively, and she went for every shot and it landed,” praised Venus.

Collins also notched notable wins over 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys at Indian Wells, and Coco Vandeweghe and Rio Olympics gold medallist Monica Puig at Miami. Her year-opening No. 162 ranking shot up to a career-high No. 53. It should rise much higher.

Jelena Ostapenko

Grade: C+

After an extremely slow start in which she won just four matches in seven tournaments, she finally harnessed her booming groundstrokes at the Miami Open. There the Latvian, who graduated from an art academy in California, produced her best work. She defeated Kvitova, Svitolina, and surprise semifinalist Danielle Collins, all in straight sets, before Stephens stopped her in the final.

The 20-year-old Ostapenko may be “the most expressive person on the planet,” as Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo called her, but she knows how to quickly re-boot her changeable emotions after points. She truly believes her high-risk shots will land in the court, and she rarely wavers. That said, she’s won an extremely low 55.3% of her service games this season, due partly to her extremely high total of 79 double faults. The reigning French Open champion will win more majors if she improves her slow and inconsistent second serve.

Garbine Muguruza

Grade: C-

The 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon champion, is playing nowhere near that championship level now. The 24-year-old Spaniard retired and withdrew from matches in her first two tournaments. The devilishly clever Su-Wei Hsieh upset her in the Australian Open second round. Muguruza peaked by reaching the Qatar finals, beating Halep and No. 7 Caroline Garcia, and the Dubai semifinals, but then lost in the Indian Wells first round and Miami Open fourth round.

Though the world No. 3 is a perfectionist, she’s learned how to control stress and shrug off losses. On March 21, Muguruza told wtatennis.com: “I’m still trying to find my rhythm. I had a few good matches, a few others that didn’t go my way, but I’m excited because the year is so long. It will turn around.”

Looking at the big picture with a serene confidence despite adversity is the mark of a champion. Muguruza will turn her sub-par season around sooner or later.

Serena Williams

Grade: Incomplete

Coming back after a difficult pregnancy, a 14-month hiatus, and at age 36 is the ultimate challenge, as Serena quickly found out. The former Queen of Tennis beat two respectable opponents at Indian Wells before her sister Venus defeated her 6-3, 6-4. At Miami, though, her shortcomings were even more exposed when rising star Naomi Osaka outclassed her 6-3, 6-2.

“Serena’s first serve is not getting her as many free points as it used to and as many as she needs now against Osaka,” pointed out Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst. “Serena’s ability to dictate rallies is still there. She’s fine if she can hit off her front foot. Her timing is also fine when she gets to the ball on time. But running from corner to corner quickly is still not there. She doesn’t quite have those quick-twitch reflexes going yet.”

Conventional tennis wisdom is to never bet against a Serena Williams comeback. But… this time the odds are greater than ever against the greatest player of all time.

Venus Williams

Grade: C-

She was ambushed by 20-year-old Belinda Bencic in the first round of this year’s Australian Open. She bounced back by making the Indians Wells semifinals and Miami Open quarterfinals. At Indian Wells, she lost a superbly played 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 battle to Kasatkina, who was born three years after Venus debuted on the pro tour. At Miami, she was upset by Danielle Collins, who said, “The first time I saw Venus in the locker room, I nearly cried. I mean, I’ve idolised her my whole life.”

Venus has enjoyed a longer twilight to her illustrious career — she won her last major title in 2008 — than many players have pro careers. Now two months shy of 38, she may be playing her last year. If Serena’s comeback fails, will the greatest sister act in pro sports history decide to retire at the same time?

Amanda Anisimova

Grade: B+

The 16-year-old American prodigy, looked like a poised and polished veteran in her WTA main Tour debut at Indian Wells. Anisimova routed No. 23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-1 and No. 9 Kvitova 6-2, 6-4 before No. 5 Pliskova beat her 6-1, 7-6. At the Miami Open, she eliminated No. 53-ranked Qiang Wang 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 and then withdrew with an injury. Unlike many teenagers, the 5’11” Anisimova first serves consistently between 100 and 110 mph and ranks second in service games won at 80.9%, albeit in only four Tour matches.

“Get used to that name and that game,” said Davenport, “because you’re going to see a lot of Amanda Anisimova in the next 10 years.”