2016 has been filled with many stories on the WTA Tour: Serena’s mini slump, Azarenka’s smashing return to prominence, Kerber’s unheralded Aussie Open win, and the emergence of the young Russians with Daria Kasatkina leading way. Lost among the Twitter explosions, and the Lemonade cameos, have been the great starts to 2016 for some athletes flying under the radar like Laura Siegemund, Timea Babos, and Christina McHale.
Although Siegemund is probably well above the radar after making her hometown Stuttgart tourney final (where she lost to fellow German Angelique Kerber), prior to 2016 Siegemund had been almost lost in the shadow of so many talented German women like Kerber, Julia Goerges, Andrea Petkovic, and Sabine Lisicki. However, this season, with big wins and deep tournament wins, she has climbed her way up the rankings, and has claimed much of the spotlight away from her compatriots. Beyond her run to the Stuttgart final, Siegemund has made the quarterfinal and round of 16 of some of the most prestigious tournaments on tour this year, including St. Petersburg (quarters), Charleston (quarters), and Madrid (round of 16). She has beaten the likes of Madison Keys, Simona Halep, Roberta Vinci, and now finds herself essentially three weeks away from qualifying for Rio Olympics. Siegemund took time off from the sport while recovering from injury to work on her education, and this summer spent time writing her bachelor’s thesis about the mindset of professional athletes when they experience choking while playing. The erudite German came back refreshed, focused, and relaxed, and seems to be enjoying each match, showing a combination of style and tenacity on court which is helping her to win big points in big moments.
Although the big serving Hungarian has seemed to have been on tour for a lifetime, Babos is still a new name to many casual tennis fans. Since turning pro in 2011, the 24-year-old Babos has had some significant doubles success and flashes of brilliance on the singles court, but this year she is finding more consistency and results. Babos is one of the leading servers on tour, and she has worked hard on building her game around it, often using 2-3 shot combinations to overwhelm her opponents. Part of the highly successful doubles team last season with Kristina Mladenovic, Babos has great hands at the net, and shows an ability to deaden the ball with drop volleys and touch. Having made the semis of Rabat and Shenzhen, Babos’s ranking has jumped to an all time high of 48 in the world with a great chance to gain more points through the clay and grass court swing this Spring.
The 24 year old American has struggled to find footing the past two seasons after reaching a career high 33 in the world in 2012. At that time, many considered here to be one of the young American women to watch out for with the likes of Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, who was just starting to find form on the tour. Since then, McHale has seemed to struggle closing matches having suffered many close losses in major events. However, 2016 has been a different story. McHale has been playing with confidence and belief, and has rediscovered the power behind her forehand and her serve. In 2016, McHale has beaten the likes of Karolina Pliskova (#20, Madrid), Garbine Muguruza (#4, Indian Wells), and Sam Stosur (in an important away tie in Melbourne in a Fed Cup win by the US.) Possibly even more notably, was her 3-set loss to Serena Williams at Miami, where for two sets, her forehand and serve were equally lethal and competitive with Williams. McHale has always had a fighting spirit, and has been a tough out for opponents, but with the belief factor now present again in her game, her ranking could climb substantially. Already up to #54 in the world with the help of her challenger win in Maui, McHale is setting herself for a potential big move this summer with relatively few points to defend.
As the WTA heads to the meet of the Slam season, it will be interesting to see if these athletes can continue their surge up the rankings, or if new names will find their place on tour and rise into view of the tennis public.