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Women’s wildcards shaping as key in 2022

  • Matt Trollope

With the WTA rankings shaken up following Australian Open 2022, several of the game’s biggest stars can no longer be guaranteed direct entry into the most prestigious tournaments.

This was evident when Indian Wells revealed its entry list last month, announcing four-time major champion Naomi Osaka and AO 2020 winner Sofia Kenin as main-draw wildcards.

Assuming everyone enters, the main-draw ranking cut-off for Indian Wells is typically No.76. In 2022, it was No.77, with Bianca Andreescu, currently ranked 44th, the only top player absent.

But at the time of the entry deadline, which arrives four weeks before WTA tournaments, Osaka had slipped to world No.85 after failing to defend the points she earned by winning AO 2021. Kenin had fallen even further, to 95th, after her AO 2020 champion points came off her ranking.

An Australian Open champion in 2020, former world No.4 Sofia Kenin fell to 95th in the rankings after the 2022 tournament. This week she dropped to world No.130 after points from her WTA title in Lyon (March 2020) came off her ranking.

Ultimately, several higher-ranked players progressively withdrew, meaning Osaka inched up the Indian Wells alternates list until she was directly accepted. Her wildcard was given to Dayana Yastremska.

Osaka then drew Sloane Stephens as her first-round opponent.

Osaka and Kenin are not the only Grand Slam champions whose rankings have dropped to such an extent that they cannot directly enter events.

Andreescu, currently inactive as she prioritises her mental health, will soon exit the top 100 when her 2021 Miami Open finalist points are subtracted. Serena and Venus Williams both find themselves outside the top 200, while two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova is currently 827th.

When – or if – these players decide to return, tournament organisers face a dilemma should it occur around the same time, especially if Osaka and Kenin do not quickly rebuild their rankings.

Wildcards are often reserved for local players or emerging talents; Kenin aside, six of the eight Indian Wells wildcards went to young American women. Yet this approach could change should multiple major champions – who carry significant star power – seek a path into the tournament.

Beyond Indian Wells and Miami, WTA 1000 events in Madrid and Rome have less wildcards available, as well as smaller draws, meaning we could even see some superstars forced to battle their way into the main draw via the qualifying rounds.

Protected rankings could apply, given injuries have prevented Serena and Kuznetsova competing since Wimbledon last year and restricted Venus to just one match in the same span.

Regardless, a fascinating few months lie ahead, especially given five of those major winners – Serena, Venus, Kuznetsova, Andreescu and Kenin – could all be ranked below the cut-off point for direct entry into Roland Garros.

Here’s where things currently stand.

Bianca Andreescu (#44)

Should her Miami points come off her ranking today, Andreescu would fall to world No.119. The Canadian has not played since Indian Wells in October – a tournament she won in 2019, along with the US Open – and announced in December that she would skip the Australian Open, while hinting at a comeback sometime in 2022. “I want to give myself extra time to re-set, recover and grow from this (the mental challenges presented by the COVID pandemic) … because I know by doing this, I will come back stronger than ever,” she wrote on social media.

Naomi Osaka (#78)

After her victory at AO 2021 Osaka played sparingly for the rest of that season and, simply, has not competed enough to accrue the points necessary to maintain a high ranking. Like Andreescu, she stepped away from the sport to focus on her mental health, returning in January this year after a four-month absence. Her third-round loss to Amanda Anisimova at Melbourne Park prompted her fall in the rankings, marking her first stint outside the top 70 in four years.

Osaka’s Indian Wells clash with Stephens foreshadows what could lie ahead; both are major champions and were once highly-ranked but now find themselves down the list and vulnerable to tough opening-round draws without the protection of a seeding.

Sofia Kenin (#130)

Kenin maintained a top-10 ranking for almost two years since her AO 2020 triumph – due to a COVID-modified rankings formula – despite going just 11-10 in an injury-plagued 2021. The 23-year-old is on a five-match losing streak and has won just two of her seven singles matches this year as she struggles to regain the form and consistency that defined her 2020 season. She is playing at Indian Wells for the first time since 2019. 

Serena Williams (#236)

Williams has not competed since injuring her hamstring and retiring from her first-round match at Wimbledon in 2021. But while the injury also forced her out of subsequent majors in New York and Melbourne, the 40-year-old indicated she was still targeting a record 24th Grand Slam singles title. “I still play tennis obviously, and I still train,” Serena laughed during a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I’m not giving up (on that record). Paris is one of my favourite cities and I actually love the clay, so we’ll see what happens. Hopefully, if my body is holding up, then I’ll definitely be there.”

Venus Williams (#470)

A leg injury also forced the elder Williams to skip last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian Open; the 41-year-old contested just 12 matches in 2021, winning only three. While she has remained highly active off court, there have been hints on social media at a competitive return. She attended the ATP tournament at Delray Beach with coach Eric Hechtman – captioning the post: “The team is back together!” – and announced a new partnership with Lacoste by stating: “I’m looking forward to doing some pretty amazing things in sport and in the community as a part of the Lacoste family!”

Svetlana Kuznetsova (#827)

Just outside the top 100 to begin the season, Kuznetsova’s ranking plummeted in late February when she lost the points she earned from her 2020 semifinal run in Doha, a WTA 1000 event. While a return date is unclear, the former world No.2 has regularly posted gym workout content on her Instagram account in the past six months, which could indicate plans for a competitive comeback.