Up until Ash Barty’s sudden retirement, the majority of the WTA top 10 reflected a notable evolution in the women’s game.
Barty, Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejcikova, Paula Badosa, Maria Sakkari and Ons Jabeur represented a new breed of top player, executing their games differently to earlier generations.
Dating back to the early 1990s, top WTA athletes had mostly been backhand-dominant players with linear swing paths, unleashing flat, powerful groundstrokes.
Maria Sharapova emerged in the early 2000s with a similar style; in her autobiography Unstoppable, the 2004 Wimbledon champion recounted how she developed it under the guidance of coach Robert Lansdorp.
“Once I’d acquired what Robert considered a suitably hard, flat stroke—it was all about getting into a nirvana-like hitting groove—we began to work on my accuracy,” Sharapova wrote, before describing drills that were “like trying to drive a tennis ball through a keyhole”.
“It got to where I could just drive that ball, hard and flat, over and over again. This puts tremendous pressure on opponents. The assault never stops.”
There were exceptions, notably Gabriela Sabatini in the 1990s, and Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin into the 2000s. Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur later introduced a heavier style built around potent, topspin-laden forehands.
Yet, as Alex Macpherson noted on the WTA Insider podcast, Kuznetsova and Stosur did not achieve true consistency with this style.
Now, players like Swiatek, and Barty – the similarly-dominant world No.1 before her – have been executing it consistently. And there has been a shift overall; even with Barty’s retirement, five of the world’s current top six possess versions of this heavy, forehand-dominant game.
There were even signs of this shift in Sharapova’s game. Her average groundstroke net clearance trended upward between Australian Open 2012 and 2015, indicating greater shape on her shots.
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Former world No.35 Nicole Pratt believes more top players are choosing to hit more forehands from the centre of the court.
“You can genuinely always do more with the forehand than the backhand, in general. You can create more spin and angles,” she explained.
"More players are starting to hit with more spin and shape on their forehand side. And the reason is (to create) heaviness of shot. 'Heaviness' means that when it hits the opponent’s racquet, it's actually harder to control; for example, Rafael Nadal's RPMs (revolutions per minute) on the ball make it really difficult for his opponents to control.
“The women have certainly moved in that direction and have been for quite some time.”
Such weight of shot is especially effective on clay, helping explain why these women have enjoyed success on the surface.
Swiatek – a back-to-back Rome champion – and Krejickova won the past two editions of the French Open. Sakkari was a point away from reaching last year’s final. Badosa flourished on clay in 2021 and reached her first major quarterfinal in Paris. Jabeur recently won her biggest career title in Madrid, between runner-up finishes in Charleston and Rome.
Barty also won at Roland Garros, in 2019 – the first of three major titles.
Pratt, now women’s coach lead at Tennis Australia, anticipated almost a decade ago that the women’s game would develop as it has. She helped Daria Saville (then Gavrilova) become a forehand-focused player as early as 2014, and watched the results follow.
“You look at what they do in the men's game, and its evolution, and there's some principles within that that you can easily make applicable to the women's game,” she said.
Multiple elements are involved in this evolution.
Pratt cites an increased emphasis on forehand technique, plus the necessary movement required to better execute that.
And then there is the improved athleticism on the women’s side, which has made this possible.
“What we're seeing is that there are some incredible athletes in the top 10,” Pratt said.
"I think there's greater clarity in their winning game style. And with that comes a sense of urgency. For example, the first step, in terms of where a player is going to move to, is critical. I think the women have become more specific in their movement patterns.”
This change correlates with more top female players investing in their teams – thanks to increased prize money over time – and recruiting full-time fitness trainers to continue this work while on tour.
Technology also factors into this evolution; data and statistical insights are increasingly available to coaches, who have also benefitted from the proliferation of tennis video footage.
“With more real data and numbers available, we're able to track improvements and you can have the conversation with players. You can get on YouTube and show your player a video… so many players are visual learners,” Pratt explained.
“There's been more integration of men's and women's tennis through tournaments, more coaches talking to each other, and quite a few traditionally men coaches starting to work with the women (such as Darren Cahill and Patrick Mouratoglou). There's been a lens applied there.
“That was one thing that Patrick did straight away with Serena Williams, it was clear and obvious – he wanted her to hit more forehands than backhands, even though her backhand is amazing.”
Pratt identifies the drop shot as the next element in the evolution of women’s tennis.
“I feel like that is another game changer that the women are starting to use more and more, to expose forward movement. But again, once that play happens more often, guess what the women are going to get better at? Moving forward,” she said.
“Players are realising they have to evolve. The need for more shape on the ball, more margin, you're not going to make as many errors, you're going to be able to find different parts of the court. If you hit very linear, you can only sort of find certain areas.
"I'm a big believer there's a place for everything. But you've got to have the physique to match that style. So often, the linear players are over six feet tall. Longer levers give you the option to hit flatter.
“Really positively, what I've seen over time is this trend, and that's what was happening in the guy’s game. So that sort of gave me a little bit of vision, like, you know what? If we can get women to move better, move around (their backhands), create a tactical strength, the sky’s the limit.”