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Five rivalries to take women’s tennis to new heights

  • Matt Trollope

Women’s tennis on the cusp of a new golden age.

Twelve first-time major winners have emerged in the past five seasons, and in great news for the sport’s future, many of them remain in the early stage of their careers.

Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Iga Swiatek and Emma Raducanu — just to name a few — are now global superstars with varied styles, engaging personalities and extremely watchable games.

The next step required to take this exciting era to the next level?

These players need to clash more regularly.

“The men have had that for a long time, it's driven the sport. And what happens is when you get these great rivalries, it raises the standard of the sport,” said former WTA pro and tennis broadcaster Sam Smith, referring primarily to iconic match-ups between Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“You've heard a lot about Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert — they made each other better.

"We've got to get some rivalries going (again on the women’s side). It's really important. You need these top players to always be at the back end of the best events.

“Sometimes when doing my prep to call big women’s matches I’ll realise, gosh, they've played once in three years. How is it possible that two of the best players in the world have not played for three years?

“That is the big ingredient.”

With this in mind, here are five rivalries we would love to see develop, with the next installment perhaps at Australian Open 2022.

Ash Barty v Aryna Sabalenka

Barty and Sabalenka have a history of close, compelling matches as well as sharply contrasting personalities and game styles.

They first met in the opening round of AO 2018 — a three-set barnstormer at Rod Laver Arena — when neither was ranked in the top 15. Since then they have risen to become the world’s No.1 and No.2 players.

Now they’re meeting in finals, with Barty pipping Sabalenka in three sets in this year’s Stuttgart decider before the Belarusian avenged that defeat with a three-set triumph to win the Madrid trophy. All three of their 2021 meetings have gone the distance.

The head-to-head series is now locked at 4-4, with Barty’s wide repertoire of shots, angles, spins and tactics, plus calm on-court demeanour, an intriguing counterpoint to Sabalenka’s all-out aggression, power and competitive intensity.

Naomi Osaka v Bianca Andreescu

In 2018, Osaka won Indian Wells and the US Open at age 20 to announce herself as a superstar. A year later, 19-year-old Andreescu won exactly those same titles — emulating Osaka by beating Serena Williams in the US Open decider — to become the WTA’s new poster girl.

They then clashed in a highly-anticipated 2019 China Open quarterfinal, a first meeting that did not disappoint. Osaka overcame Andreescu in three compelling sets to end the Canadian’s 17-match winning streak in the midst of her own 14-match unbeaten run.

Naomi Osaka (L) beat Bianca Andreescu (R) in their only career meeting so far in a thrilling, three-set China Open quarterfinal in Beijing, 2019. (Getty Images)

Andreescu recounted their post-match exchange at net: “I said, ‘Congrats, you played amazing’. She said, ‘You're amazing’. I said, ‘We're going to have so many more matches like this. I can't wait to see what the future holds’. She's like, ‘Yup, I'm excited’.”

Yet they’ve never played again; physical issues forced Andreescu to skip the entire 2020 season while Osaka missed large chunks of competition in 2021 as she prioritised her mental health. Andreescu later withdraw from Australian Open 2022 citing similar reasons.

Osaka revealed earlier in 2021 that “I'd love to play Andreescu in a (Grand Slam) final” — and most tennis fans would be thrilled to witness just that.

Iga Swiatek v Jelena Ostapenko

What better match-up than one between players who won their first ever tour titles at a Grand Slam?

Just two days after turning 20, Jelena Ostapenko overpowered everyone en route to the Roland Garros title in 2017 as an unseeded world No.47. Swiatek then pulled off a near-identical feat; also unseeded and ranked 54th, she did not drop a set in a brilliant fortnight in Paris in 2020, all while aged 19.

Those Roland Garros triumphs have so far defined both players’ careers, and it would be fabulous to see them go head-to-head more often, especially given their contrasting styles.

Ostapenko does her damage with high-risk, flat, fast groundstrokes, and leads the series against Swiatek 2-0, having not dropped a set. Yet the young Pole, with her higher margins, vicious topspin and incredible athleticism, is surely too talented to continue allowing Ostapenko to dominate the match-up.

Emma Raducanu v Leylah Fernandez

Raducanu and Fernandez will forever be intertwined by their magnificent runs at US Open 2021, where they clashed in the unlikeliest of major finals to conclude an unforgettable fortnight.

Britain’s Raducanu, 18, bettered 19-year-old Fernandez but the 6-4 6-3 scoreline was deceptive — this was a high-quality battle spanning almost two hours in a supercharged atmosphere in New York.

We would love to see the second installment of this burgeoning rivalry, pitting right-handed Raducanu’s smooth, fluid groundstrokes and power — reminiscent of Li Na — against left-handed Fernandez’s compact style.

Both youngsters will have continued to develop their games and accrued more big-match experience by the time they next come face to face.

Sofia Kenin v Coco Gauff

An added layer to this potential rivalry is the competition for the crown of top US female player — especially compelling given the depth of American women’s tennis and what this could mean for future Billie Jean King Cup and Olympic team selection.

Kenin is currently her nation’s No.1 player, thanks to her victory at Australian Open 2020, a title run which went through Gauff in the fourth round. That memorable match, during which Kenin rebounded from a set down, remains their only meeting.

Gauff, just 17, is already the American No.3 and just outside the top 20 after taking notching impressive milestones in 2021, including her first major quarterfinal at Roland Garros and another trip to Wimbledon’s second week.

Should she and Kenin clash more regularly, fans are in for a treat; the match-up pits Gauff’s fearsome serve against Kenin’s effective return, and sets up scintillating backhand-to-backhand rallies between two of the game’s best movers and most intense competitors.