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Petchey: Women’s tennis needs “superb rivalry with a bit of edge”

  • Matt Trollope

Women’s tennis needs its stars advancing more consistently to the business end of majors to set the stage for dramatic clashes, ultimately driving interest in the sport.

This is the view of commentator Mark Petchey, who admitted he rued Ash Barty’s unexpected retirement in March, which deprived fans of a potentially captivating rivalry with Iga Swiatek.

Speaking on the most recent episode of The AO Show podcast, Petchey, a former top-100 pro from Great Britain, believed persistent parity and openness could only take the women’s game so far.

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"Ever since Ash decided unfortunately to pull up stumps... it was always going to leave the door open,” Petchey said in the days following Elena Rybakina’s Wimbledon triumph.

“Obviously Iga's been as dominant as anyone can be in that situation, pretty much straight out of the blocks. Somewhat sadly, we don't see that rivalry actually in the last couple of months. 

Ash Barty shakes hands with Iga Swiatek after their third-round match at the Madrid Open
Ash Barty (L) and Iga Swiatek met just twice, the first of those clashes (pictured) coming in Madrid 2021, which Barty won 7-5 6-4. (Getty Images)

“I would have loved to have seen Ash against Iga; I think it would have been one of those great sporting rivalries that would've really captured people's attention for a while.

RELATED: Five rivalries to take women’s tennis to new heights

"But it has opened the door for these opportunities for other players. Rybakina's taken it here at Wimbledon.”

Barty left as the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion and dominant world No.1.

Swiatek quickly and impressively emerged as the WTA Tour’s new leading player, accumulating six titles – including Roland Garros – and 37 straight match wins, a streak that ended in the third round at Wimbledon.

Yet she is currently without a true rival, evidenced by her 4,000-point lead over world No.2 Anett Kontaveit in the rankings.

And Petchey believes it is this ingredient currently missing from the women’s game, which if discovered, could take the tour to new heights.

“Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” he said.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It's a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. 

"That is the one thing that is missing from the women's tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

"That's why I say I'm sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could've developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there.

ASH BARTY RETIRES: "I've given absolutely everything"

"Going into every major saying that you're not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. You can't keep saying 'oh, anyone can win it'. Because you're just not tagging anybody... you're not setting the scene for something amazing that's going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major.

"They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that's what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

A new rivalry to emerge?

Encouragingly, multiple stars will return during the North American summer, making blockbuster match-ups possible that both Petchey, and millions more fans, are hoping to see.

Naomi Osaka, injured since Roland Garros, is preparing for next week’s WTA event in San Jose.

In the same week, Venus Williams will compete for the first time in almost 12 months at the tournament in Washington DC.

Serena Williams, meanwhile, has ramped up her comeback plans by entering both Toronto and Cincinnati – the first time she will contest both WTA 1000 events back-to-back since 2015.

RELATED: After Wimbledon loss, Serena hints she’s not done

Also rebounding from injuries are AO 2020 champion Sofia Kenin and Canadian star Leylah Fernandez, who are set to play in Toronto.

Victoria Azarenka and Aryna Sabalenka, absent from Wimbledon, are also expected to resume their seasons.

To hear the full interview and more exclusive content, subscribe to The AO Show via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.