Previewing the 2022 WTA Season

Ashleigh Barty in action ahead of the WTA Charleston Open.

2022 is fast approaching and another WTA season is on the horizon. What should we expect to see from this sport in the coming year?

2021 had ups and downs; with the Covid restrictions, moving of tournaments and tweaks to the ranking system. This was reflected in unpredictable results. Let’s take a look at who might be the winners in 2022.

2022 WTA Season Preview

Ashleigh Barty

Barty is the clear #1 for the last two interrupted seasons and proved her ranking by taking the Wimbledon title in July.

Barty won five titles in 2021, including the Miami Open and Cincinnati during the summer, and played in six finals. In the major championships, Barty reached the quarterfinal of the Australian Open and retired in the second round of the French Open. A first round loss at the Olympics in Tokyo then Barty blew a winning position in the fourth round of the US Open. Losing to Shelby Rogers in three sets.

Barty went on to miss the rearranged WTA Championships in Mexico in November.  Mainly to avoid the extended travel; Covid uncertainty and prepare for the Australian Open.

Barty received a lot of praise throughout 2021 for playing a game which is a little different from the other players in the top 10. Barty plays with a two hand backhand but uses the slice backhand a lot, giving variety to her game which worked beautifully on grass this year. At 1m 66 (5ft 5 inches) she is relatively short by WTA standards but hit 325 aces throughout the year which is a lot. Barty also won 80% of her service games and 40% of her return games which is extremely impressive. I will like to see Barty improve her two hand backhand stroke further.

In 2022 Barty’s task is to win a hardcourt Slam–an Australian Open title on home soil would do nicely. This will be difficult because an Australian has not won the event since 1978.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka cemented her place in the top 5 of the WTA rankings in 2021 and reached a career high of number 2 in August.

Sabalenka won two titles early in 2021, at the Abu Dhabi Open in January and Madrid Open in May. Sabalenka beat number 1 Barty in Madrid but lost to her earlier in Stuttgart on indoor clay.  Sabalenka had a slow start in the Slams in 2021, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and third round of the French Open. Sabalenka had a much better run in the summer Slams, reaching the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the US Open. However, Sabalenka will be disappointed not to make the final in either of them. She was the favourite in the matches against Karolina Pliskova in Wimbledon and Leylah Fernandez in New York.

In Wimbledon, Sabalenka took the first set but couldn’t see it through against an inspired Pliskova. Sabalenka wilted under the pressure of the New York crowd and Leylah Fernandez’s fighting spirit. This is something Sabalenka will have to work on and gained valuable experience in September.

Sabalenka is the archetypal modern tennis player. Tall at 1 metre 82 (6 ft), Sabalenka can “ball bash” with the best of them. Sabalenka has a very good serve although her end of year stats are not the best. Throughout 2021 Sabalenka won 71% of first serves and 47% of her second serves. Sabalenka also won 38% of return games, quite good. The two semifinals in the majors showed that Sabalenka can get nervous and make mistakes.  The stats also show that can she can be got at on the second serve.

Sabalenka has the ability to become a major champion in the near future but still needs to work on some aspects of her game.  Changing the pace of the ball every now and again is an idea but modern players tend not to do this as much on the WTA tour.  We will see if 2022 will be Sabalenka’s year to break through and win a Major tournament.

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Garbine Muguruza

It seems strange to talk about Muguruza as a top three player and Major contender once again. But that is the reality of the situation after Muguruza won the WTA championships in November. Muguruza won the title for the first time in her career defeating Anett Kontaveit in the final.

A few years ago I likened Muguruza to the female Marat Safin in terms of game style and lack of consistency. Muguruza is certainly still living up to that comparison, her ranking fluctuates pretty wildly and she is a dangerous floater often in the draw.

The Australian Open in January is a good example, she was within a game of taking out eventual champion Naomi Osaka in round 16. Muguruza served for the match but couldn’t get the job done and Osaka won out in three sets. Muguruza did not get beyond the round of 16 in any of the four majors this year.  However, Muguruza did win three titles including Dubai and Chicago in addition to the WTA Championships.

The stats show Muguruza throughout 2021 has a 66% success rate after getting her first serve in. 40.6% return games won is very good. This demonstrates Muguruza’s inconsistencies. She is not able to dominate opponents as you would expect at her height of 1 metre 82 (6 ft.). Muguruza does not hit many aces or serve particularly quick. I think Muguruza is not blessed with fast twitch fibres. At times she relies too much on counterpunching, when she doesn’t have the “wheels” to pull that style of play off. Muguruza is better off going after opponents ala Lindsay Davenport.

Muguruza can create an opportunity to add to her French and Wimbledon titles she won in 2016 and 2017.

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Karolina Pliskova

Like Muguruza, Pliskova climbed back into the Top 5 of the WTA rankings.

Pliskova made the final of Wimbledon and gave Ashleigh Barty a good run before succumbing in three sets. I saw Pliskova beat Luidmila Samsonova at Wimbledon on Court 12 and she was in good form that day. She was moving better than she did in the past on grass. Therefore, it was no surprise she made the final but couldn’t realise her dream. In fact, Pliskova won zero titles in 2021 despite making finals in Rome and Montreal. Pliskova also made the semifinal of Cincinnati, getting close but not over the line at the big events.  It is a feature of the current top 5 that collectively they won so few titles in 2021.

Pliskova made a number of changes to her set up the last few seasons after getting married and is now coached by Sascha Bajin. Pliskova is working on her movement to complement her brilliant serve and ball striking ability and good return of serve. The stats show Pliskova won 70% of her first serve points during 2021 and 32.5% of her return games. Not bad but not great either which might explain her lack of titles this year.

Pliskova’s height can be a hindrance to her progress, especially on grass. She enjoyed previous success at Eastbourne but that is a warm up tournament. Pliskova is set to miss the Australian Open so will start the new year on the back foot. Her quest to win that elusive major title will continue. She will need a fair bit of luck in 2022 to crack the grand slam code.

Barbora Krejčíková

Krejčíková surprised everyone this year by winning the French Open singles and doubles. Krejčíková was the first player to win that double since Mary Pierce in the year 2000. I can assume Krejčíková surprised herself by winning the French.

Until then, Krejčíková was known for her doubles prowess with the potential to do very well in singles. This is not new, a few players started off better in doubles before becoming more known for their singles success. Sam Stosur made the transition in the late 2000s and won the US Open in 2011. Krejčíková beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets in an entertaining final and made quite an entertaining victory speech :-0

Krejčíková won 3 titles in 2021 including Strasbourg on clay and the Prague Open in July on home soil. Krejčíková also lost a final to Muguruza in Dubai. Krejčíková finished the year by reaching the quarterfinal of the US Open and winning the doubles with Kateřina Siniaková at the Olympics and WTA championships.

Krejčíková contsructs points well and is not a power player. This makes her an unknown quantity for 2022 and how she will react to being a Grand Slam champion. Including defending her French Open title next May. Krejčíková will like to consolidate her positon in the top 10 and pick up titles where she can. I am not sure she is ready to win another major title but the WTA tour is still in flux so anything is possible.

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Other players to watch:

Naomi Osaka

If things went to plan, Osaka would be Top 2 in the world and building a legacy of major wins. Due to mental health issues, Osaka’s career seems on hold after what happened at the French Open when she withdrew unexpectedly. Osaka now has two tasks on the tennis front. The first is to get back to the level she was, the second to improve significantly on clay and grass.

Emma Raducanu

Everyone knows the incredible achievement of winning the US Open as a qualifier. However, we don’t know Raducanu’s consistent level as she hasn’t been on tour long enough. 2022 has to be about consolidation and building her momentum to be seen as a consistent top 20 player.

Leylah Fernandez

A surprise finalist at the US Open, Fernandez wowed everyone with her level of play and fighting spirit. Like Raducanu, Fernandez has a few things to work on her game before she can be seen as a consistent top 10 player. Fernandez has the memory of overcoming Osaka, Kerber, Svitolina and Sabalenka en route to the US Open final.  This should help her going forward, she has potential.

Serena Williams

I am including Serena here in honor of her achievements the game. As for 2022, the tipping point is close due to injuries and age. Retirement with dignity is an option. Not saying Serena would do it but no player in the Open Era won a Major title at the age of 40+.

Main Photo from Getty.