Ashleigh Barty announced her shock retirement on Wednesday at the age of 25. She retires not just as the #1 player in the world, but also as the reigning champion of two of the four Major tournaments. Barty’s retirement opens up the top of the game to an already deep and competitive WTA field. Since Barty’s first Major title at the 2019 French Open, the eight Grand Slams not won by Barty have been won by seven different players. Barty was dangerous on all three surfaces, winning one Major on each. Her retirement truly gives the entire tour a better chance at capturing every big title. Fans will be disappointed to see Barty go, but there will be plenty of excitement to look forward to seeing which players can step up in her absence.
WTA Players Most Likely to Take Over after Ashleigh Barty
Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka
From the 2018 US Open to the 2021 Australian Open, Naomi Osaka was near impossible to beat on hard courts, capturing four of the six hard court Major titles in that span. She stepped away from the game after the 2021 French Open, citing mental health issues. While she said she felt to be in a better place at this year’s Australian Open, a tearful exit from Indian Wells shows that she is still struggling with her mental health. With plenty of talk about the toll tennis takes on player’s mental health, including Barty citing that as one of her reasons for retiring, Osaka may decide that it is in her best interest to permanently leave the game. Tennis fans will surely hope to see her back, and if she feels mentally ready to return to tennis full-time, could easily return to her dominant form.
Serena Williams turned pro before Barty was born, and shockingly is still active. At the age of 40 and being a mother, she has played a limited schedule and has essentially no chance at getting to #1. However, Serena has one goal left to accomplish in the sport: equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Major titles. The talent of the WTA Tour will make that difficult but it would be crazy to write off the possibility of Serena making one last magical run. She reached the Australian Open semifinals just last year, and Barty’s departure leaves one less top player to stand in the way of Serena winning one last Major title.
Tour Veterans Looking to Get Back
While the WTA Tour has plenty of young stars, there are still several veterans who could be able to step up and return to the top. Karolina Pliskova is currently ranked #8 in the world and was world #1 in 2017. She has yet to win a major championship but will be one of the favorites at Wimbledon, where she fell to Barty in the final last year. She is 30 years old, but her big serve helps make her game less physical and gives her potentially more time to capture that elusive Grand Slam title.
After three years spent outside of the Top 10, Garbine Murugurza had a strong 2021, capped off by a triumph at the year-end WTA Finals. She has shown her prowess on all three surfaces, winning three WTA 1000 events on hard court in addition to French Open and Wimbledon titles. She is a proven champion and will surely benefit by Barty’s retirement. Muruguruza will be a player to watch at every event with her skill on all three surfaces, and reasonably could get back to #1 in the world.
Finally, Simona Halep has a shot to take advantage of Barty’s departure. She has not been in her peak form of late, but she spent over a year at World #1 between 2017 and 2019 and has shown flashes of her peak form. She won Melbourne in 2022 and recently reached the Indian Wells semifinal, and is currently ranked 19th in the world. Her physical game will make it difficult to stay at the top for several more years at age 30, but 2022 could be a big year for Halep. She is another great all-court player, and removing Barty from her challengers could allow for her to rise to the top with strong play in the coming months.
Young Talent Already in the Top 10
There is a plethora of depth among young stars on the WTA Tour, but three specific players under 25 look ready to take Barty’s place as the top player in the sport. Iga Swiatek will take over as world #1 after Barty retires, and at 20 years old could stay there for a long time. Coming up she looked like more of a clay-court specialist, with almost all of her best results on the surface highlighted by winning the 2020 French Open as a teenager. She has improved massively on hard courts, dominating the surface this year by winning both WTA 1000 events so far and making the semifinal in Australia. Her consistency and shot-making makes her near impossible to beat, and as the first player to take the top spot after Barty, she is the clear choice for the new face of the WTA Tour.
While Swiatek plays a consistent game, Aryna Sabalenka is almost the polar opposite. She is arguably the most talented player on the WTA Tour and when she is locked in, her power and strength make her nearly unbeatable. However, she often struggles with errors and double faults and has the tendency to beat herself, even against players she should easily win against. She reached two major semifinals last year and has four WTA 1000 titles to her name. Her lack of consistency has prevented her from reaching a major final, but as a Top 5 player in the world at age 23, she will be dangerous for years to come and if she can reduce her errors could reasonably reach the top of the game.
Paula Badosa was a late bloomer relative to much of the WTA, but will re-enter the Top 5 once Barty leaves the rankings. She won Indian Wells last fall in dominant fashion, dropping just two sets all tournament. Badosa is a danger on both clay and hard courts and may be in the best shape to challenge for world #1. She broke out near the middle of 2021, so she has far fewer points to defend than many of the other top players, and she can easily rise to the top if she continues her strong play.
Others Capable of Reaching the Top
Three more players have the chance of getting to the top without Barty. Anett Kontaveit was arguably the best player in the world at the end of 2021. She won consecutive titles near the end of 2021, and added on a finals appearance at the WTA Finals and won another title in February of this year. She has not had much success at majors yet but she also rose to the top relatively late and is still settling in as an elite player. The Estonian may not quite be able to compete with the top players throughout the season, but she will certainly be one to watch without a clear dominant player in the game.
Barbora Krejikova had an incredible run to the French Open title last year as an unseeded player. She is a great clay-courter but has also played well on hard, giving her plenty of chances to compete for titles throughout the year. Her biggest concern may be workload, as the #2 doubles player in the world playing a large number of matches between singles and doubles. She is a Top 5 singles player and may be inclined to focus more on the singles side, now that the #1 spot is much more achievable. She has not spent much time near the top of the singles game, but her rapid rise shows that if she continues her form she could easily be the player to beat every week.
Maria Sakkari has been on the edge of glory in the WTA for well over a year. Her physical game makes her difficult for any opponent and she reached four semifinals at big tournaments (majors, WTA 1000, and WTA finals) last season and has already added on two this year. She has had trouble winning titles, capturing just one in her entire career. She is still a threat for #1, especially considering the depth of the tour. If she continues her results, she can earn enough points to reach the top spot even without a big title, and potentially use that as a springboard for success at majors like Caroline Wozniaki did. Sakkari has an advantage of being in elite physical shape and can take advantage of the unpredictability of the WTA to score consistent results and fight for the top spot.
The always-entertaining WTA Tour is now open as ever without Barty. There have been countless upsets over the last few years, highlighted by the 2021 US Open final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. Barty was a great personality and clearly the best player in the world, so her loss will be difficult for tennis fans. The amount of players that can fill the void will bring plenty of excitement to the women’s game, more than making up for the absence of Barty. After the dominance of Serena Williams for years and Barty seeming to be someone who could have held the #1 spot for much of the future, the mystery of who will take over will provide many exiting storylines. Any of these players mentioned could be the next one to step up, but tennis could also not have one player dominant, with every week someone new fighting for titles. There are plenty of positives to come, and a disappointing loss will turn in to plenty of excitement ahead.
Main Photo from Getty.