Big names and breakthrough stars target AO 2021 glory

  • Matt Trollope

 

No player has defended their Australian Open title since Victoria Azarenka in 2013.

Roland Garros’ last five champions have been first-time major winners.

Not since 2016 has a player won more than one Slam title in a season.

As Martina Navratilova, on the WTA website, wrote in November 2018: “We are now in a period of predictable unpredictability. I guess this lack of consistency is the new normal and we're going to keep on seeing it.”

The narrative has merit, but things are shifting.

There is an increasing stability within the WTA top 10, with five of the 10 – Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova – having become entrenched there.

World No.2 Halep has become the tour’s symbol of consistency, something celebrated earlier in 2020 when WTA Insider announced she had notched 317 consecutive weeks inside the top 10 – the 10th longest streak in WTA history.

Halep first cracked the top 10 after reaching the Australian Open 2014 quarterfinals and has stayed there ever since. She is now at 344 straight weeks, leap-frogging Conchita Martinez and Lindsay Davenport into eighth spot on the all-time list.

Pliskova also enjoys a lengthy, uninterrupted run here. The Czech rose from No.11 to No.6 after her 2016 US Open final appearance and has since spent 207 consecutive weeks in the top 10, the second-longest streak among active women.

Third is Svitolina, the Ukrainian now at 171 straight weeks inside the top 10 after entering in May 2017 with victory in Rome. 

Even Osaka, a relatively new star, has spent more than two years inside the top 10; she first cracked it with victory at the 2018 US Open and now owns the fourth-longest active WTA streak.

For context, half of the current ATP top 10 – Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini – cannot match Osaka’s top-10 uninterrupted longevity.

Kvitova, meanwhile, will end 2020 at world No.8, her eighth top-10 finish in the past 10 seasons. In 2016, her year-end ranking was No.11.

Grand Slam consistency

Meanwhile, Serena Williams, since her comeback as a mother, has shown a remarkable level at Grand Slams, reaching the second week at seven of the 10 she has contested, including four finals. She also returned to the top 10 in July 2019 and remained there every week until slipping one rung down to 11th – where she remains – in November 2020.

Prior to motherhood, she finished every season bar one from 2008 to 2016 inside the top five.

The “inconsistency” of female players has generated commentary – often negative, at which Osaka bristles – because it contrasts sharply with a concurrent period of stability in men’s game.

(L-R) Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Naomi Osaka have all remained inside the WTA top 10, without ever falling out, for several years. (Getty Images)

The “Big Three” of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have scooped a remarkable 53 of the past 62 Grand Slam trophies. Perhaps fans and pundits equate consistency with “consistently winning majors” – something extraordinarily difficult to do.

While the top women – even Serena, without a major title in almost four years – cannot currently match this level of dominance, their is an increasing sense of reliability among the leading names at majors.

Since the beginning of 2014, Halep has played 26 Slams and reached the quarterfinals or better at 14; Svitolina reached the same stage or better at four of her past six; Kvitova progressed to week two at five of her last six Slams, including each one in 2020.

From US Open 2016 to Australian Open 2019, Pliskova reached at least the quarterfinals at seven of 10 majors; current world No.1 Ash Barty has progressed to at least the fourth round at six consecutive majors.

The way forward

Osaka is yet to attain this consistency - interspersed among her three major victories have been early exits at several others.

Young, Slam-winning contemporaries Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek are in a similar position, apparently aware of the lingering “inconsistency” narrative and motivated to banish it further.

READ MORE: Swiatek seeks consistency after Roland Garros breakthrough

Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, recently told Tennis Majors this was her primary goal. “It’s easier to get to (the top of the sport), but now is when the work starts, to stay there and be consistent throughout years and years,” she said.

It echoed Swiatek’s thoughts after the Polish teen won the 2020 Roland Garros title. “I think this is what women's tennis is struggling with. That's why we have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not, like, as consistent as Rafa, Roger, and Novak,” she said.

“That's why my goal is going to be to be consistent.”