21/02/2024

December 30: Maria Sakkari (GRE) at the Koala Encounter Experience at Taronga Zoo, before the 2024 United Cup in Sydney, on Saturday, December 30, 2023. Photo by TENNIS AUSTRALIA/ JAMES GOURLEY

One of the most unique aspects of the women’s tour is the unpredictability and level playing field, creating much-needed suspense to build anticipation and excitement.

Since Ash Barty’s sudden retirement, Poland’s Iga Światek has taken full advantage to stamp her authority and dominance. That said, the four-time grand slam champion isn’t as invincible as we may have first thought.

Although Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, and Angelique Kerber took time away from the game this year for different reasons, women’s tennis is still as strong as ever before, especially with the young talent shining through.

With an action-packed 12 months just about reaching a halt, it’s time to reflect on the year that was:

Aryna Sabalenka’s maiden breakthrough

Before touching down in Australia for the year’s first grand slam, the pressure was well and truly existent for world number two Aryna Sabalenka.

Sabalenka has attracted attention since she set foot on the tour, dominating through her sheer power and striking ability off both wings, which is a priceless asset.

What she has lacked in the past, though is composure and mental fortitude in the biggest of moments, undeniably costing the 25-year-old a handful of major titles. The decision-making and ability to control her emotions hadn’t quite matured, but that all changed in the lead-up to Melbourne Park.

Sabalenka won ten consecutive matches in straight sets en route to the big dance at Rod Laver Arena, including a title in Adelaide.

The then reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina was no easy task to overcome. Still, Sabalenka arguably played some of the best tennis of her career, which helped her claim her first grand slam trophy. Tears of joy soon followed in an emotional rollercoaster for a player who has experienced many heartaches.

Upsets

Fresh off a WTA Finals title late last year, former world number four Caroline Garcia had finally rediscovered her best tennis to compete with the best in the world.

That’s why it was a complete shock when the then world number 79 Alycia Parks manufactured a way to beat the Frenchwoman at the Lyon Open in straight sets without dropping serve. At 22, Parks is slowly showing glimpses of her talent capable of troubling the top players in the game.

At some point, Światek was bound to dip in form, given her remarkable stretch of positive results.

Known for her doubles play as much as singles, Barbora Krejčíková has been a consistent top performer, making her extremely difficult to break down. However, she was without a top 10 win in over a year until the Czech blew Šwiatek off the court in a 6-4, 6-2 ousting in Dubai to make a statement.

Surprisingly, that wasn’t the first time that the Pole was on the receiving end of an upset, as former Wimbledon semi-finalist Elina Svitolina bowed her out at the same tournament in the quarters.

Returning to the tour after giving birth to partner Gaël Monfils, WTA’s feel-good story of the year belonged to the Ukrainian as not only did she claim a title in Strasbourg, but the 29-year-old ranked 76 at the time, turned back the clock at the All England Club to defeat Światek in a classic affair.

Changing of the guard

Speaking of Światek, her formidable supremacy peaked in February 2022 as she went on a 37-match unbeaten run spanning 135 days. Once Alizé Cornet caused a stunning upset in the third round of Wimbledon, it suddenly left the door ajar for the chasing pack.

Making waves at 15 when she made her professional debut at Wimbledon, Coco Gauff has developed into the all-round player the tennis world knew she was capable of, as four years on, she claimed the US Open (winning two titles in America before her win at Flushing Meadows).

Styles win fights, which certainly fits the bill for Rybakina, who has defeated Światek in their past three meetings, ultimately providing the Khazak with a world of confidence and belief.

The usual suspects of Sabalenka, Jessica Pegula, and Markéta Vondroušová, along with the imminent comeback of Naomi Osaka, will ensure that the competition at the top remains incredibly high.

More Sports News

Simona Halep controversy

Doping allegations and appeals tend to reach the point of chaos and unpleasantness, with Simona Halep’s situation heading in the same direction.

The former world number one and two-time grand slam champion is regarded as one of the best players over the past decade, but her reputation came crashing down as she tested positive for a banned substance back in October last year.

In Halep’s view, the appeals process was unfair, and she was not allowed to tell her side of the story until her three-year suspension was handed down in September. After the hearing, the 31-year-old released a statement.

“I refuse to accept their decision of a four-year ban. While I am grateful to finally have an outcome following numerous unfounded delays and a feeling of living in purgatory for over a year, I am both shocked and disappointed by their decision…I am continuing to train and do everything in my power to clear my name of these false allegations and return to the court.”

This story casts flashbacks to the doping scandal surrounding Maria Sharapova, and the Romanian will be hoping to have her ban reduced if she hopes to salvage her career.

Match of the year

If the criteria are based on quality, power, dominance on serve, and the overall occasion, then the Australian Open final between Sabalenka and Rybakina tops the list.

Twenty-six aces between the pair told the story in a game of inches with hard-hitting, finding the lines to near perfection.

Sabalenka’s mentality has come under fire many times throughout her career, but how she managed to navigate her way out of a set down to emerge victorious is a credit to the maturity developed.

Overall, this was an absolute classic for the neutrals.

Most disappointing year

This may come across as harsh, but Spaniard Paula Badosa’s calendar year was underwhelming by her standards.

Those standards shaped themselves to be massive when the 26-year-old won the Indian Wells event in 2021, soon being forced to face the eyes of the tennis world with larger scrutiny.

Badosa’s game fits the modern-day trend dictating the points from the baseline, is blessed with a versatile change of direction, and can generate pace, but injuries have hampered what should have seen her take another step up.

Only one semi-final appearance, albeit not being able to participate and resulting in a walkover, Badosa needs to use this off-season to focus on her body if she wants to catch up to the elite.

Sportsmanship at an all-time low

This particular incident shocked the tennis world to the point of utter disbelief.

20-year-old Hungarian Amarissa Toth was the villain of the storm when experienced veteran Zhang Shuai hit a ball that the replay confirmed found the chalk. Shuai pleaded her case with the umpire for several minutes before another argument erupted at the next point over the same decision.

Toth wiped away the ball mark with her foot, much to the disgust of Shuai who was heard screaming, “Wait, wait, wait, keep the mark. What are you doing? Why would you do that?”

Shaui broke down in tears during the change of ends before deciding not to continue. Straight after the brief handshake, Toth turned away celebrating with her arms raised in the air despite the distasteful way the match ended.

Australian headlines

Becoming the number one ranked Australian female since Barty’s retirement cannot be said at this current moment for Ajla Tomlajnović, who has experienced a frustrating 2023 due to injuries.

Forced to miss her home slam, the 30-year-old made her first appearance at the US Open in style before finishing the season by winning the MundoTenis Open on the Brazilian clay courts.

Famous for her win over Serena Williams last year in the American’s final professional match, Tomlajnović will be hoping to emulate that form heading into the new year.

Never mind the singles; Australia has a representative on top of the doubles world rankings. Storm Sanders has had an incredible year with Belgium’s Elise Mertens as the pair reached the Wimbledon doubles final.

Sanders was nominated for the John Newcombe Medal award in recognition of her commendable rise both on the doubles and singles circuits.

Looking ahead to the future is always exciting, and Western Australian-born teenager Taylah Preston might be Australia’s brightest tennis prospect.

The 17-year-old claimed four titles this season to keep her name on the map. Preston was rewarded by winning the Female Junior Athlete of the Year at Tennis Australia’s awards ceremony.

Remember the name at the upcoming Australian Open, as Preston has received a wildcard entry into the main draw at Melbourne Park.

About Author