This offseason, Last Word On Tennis will be looking back at the seasons of the top 50 players on each tour. This installment includes the WTA players ranked 1-5.
6. Karolina Pliskova
It was a breakthrough year for the Czech player. She made her first Grand Slam singles final at the US Open and beat then-World No.1 Serena Williams in a memorable semifinal.
Pliskova’s brutal and ruthless ball striking from the back of the court is enough to frighten any player, but the biggest improvement has been in her ability to move around the court in quicker fashion. That was the one element of her game that was holding her back from being a regular component of the world’s elite players in professional tennis. The Czech reiterated this improvement at the Aegon International in Eastbourne, but it became more apparent in her title win at Cincinnati, where she picked up her biggest WTA title to date.
Pliskova’s year finished at the Fed Cup Final in Strasbourg, where she played her part in Czech Republic’s third Fed Cup win in as many years. She also managed to qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore for the first time, which is something that many players aspire to do at the beginning of their respective seasons.
What next for Karolina Pliskova? The goal is to win Majors. Now that she has tasted the experience and feeling of a major final, she will want to go that one step further. The offensive side of the game is perfect, but now that she has added the defensive capabilities, the world really is her oyster. And she will be striving to get higher in the rankings with new coach David Kotyza, after splitting with Jiri Vanek, a coach that she delivered 5 WTA titles with.
7. Garbine Muguruza
The hard-hitting Spaniard has had one of the strangest seasons to comprehend. She managed to win her maiden Grand Slam title, becoming the first Spanish female winner since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in 1998, but she also struggled enormously with her consistency. Like I said, Roland Garros was the highlight of her season, and her lowest point came in Wimbledon, where she lost shockingly to Slovak Jana Cepelova in the second round. That loss would have stung considering she was defending final points from the previous year.
Muguruza lost early in many events and lost her first match in five events in total. If Muguruza wants to assert herself as a Top 5 player and regular in that Top 5 bracket, she has to improve her consistency and her application and desire for every single point. That hurt her considerably this season when things were not going to plan during difficult matches.
8. Madison Keys
One of the biggest surprises of 2016 saw Madison Keys add consistency to her game. She is the type of player that can take the racquet away from her opponent with her vicious ball striking, but her issue was being able to go for the right shot at the right time and waiting for her opportunity. Keys improved this tremendously in 2016. She split with longtime coach Lindsay Davenport in the off season leading into the 2016 season, but struck a good partnership with Jesse Levine, before electing to choose Thomas Hogstedt between May and December of 2016.
The memorable period for Keys came in the middle of the season–reaching her first Premier 5 final in Rome on the red clay and then entering the Top 10 for the first time by winning the title at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham. The American had always had the game to deliver impressive results at Majors, including her run to the Australian Open semi-final of 2015, but the transition to competing greatly week-in-week-out was something that Keys had never experienced.
Where can Keys improve in 2017? First of all, she did not make it past the Round of 16 at any Major this year, which speaks volumes to how high her ranking is despite the room for improvement as far as Grand Slams are concerned. One can argue that Keys’ ranking would be even higher if the Olympics offered ranking points as she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal.
The next step for Keys is finding stability in her coaching set up. She needs to find the right voice and right communicator that suits her perfectly, which could be the key to her winning her maiden Grand Slam title.
9. Svetlana Kuznetsova
The two-time Grand Slam singles champion showed a resurgence at the conclusion of the season, but also had some great successes at the beginning of the year. More notably, she claimed the Sydney title by routing Monica Puig in the final and she also beat Serena Williams en route to a final showing in Miami. Her arrival back in the Top 10 came when she went on a tear, winning Moscow again, making the semi-finals in Tianjin and being one of the star performers in the WTA Finals, when many expected her to be exhausted from her exploits in the previous weeks.
The Russian is one of those players that can feel her game clicking one week and then could disappear for a number of weeks. That is why the late resurgence was so impressive as it still continues to be hard to analyze whether Kuznetsova will perform great during competitive competitions. Before her Miami final run, Kuznetsova had lost 6 of her last 7 matches, which proves that she really can switch her game on at the drop of a hat.
10. Johanna Konta
The highlight of a stellar year for Johanna Konta has to be the semifinal run at the Australian Open, where she beat Venus Williams in the first round, and won a memorable match 8-6 in the 3rd against Ekaterina Makarova. She became the first British woman to reach a grand slam semi-final since the year of 1983, which is an incredible accomplishment. The real sign of an enhancement in her confidence would be seen when she finally picked up her first WTA title by beating Venus Williams in the Stanford final. The longer it takes to get over the line at a WTA event, the harder it can get as the mental baggage begins to increase in size.
The biggest disappointment was not qualifying for the WTA Finals. It probably was not a target at the beginning of the season, but to lose out at the last moment must have had an adverse effect on the British No.1.
Konta split with her coach, despite a fantastic season. Now with the renewed confidence and greater performances under pressure, maybe Konta can contest for grand slams on a regular basis in 2017.