With the 2023 WTA season fast approaching, let’s take a look at the contenders for the big titles.
What a year for Iga Swiatek! Swiatek started 2022 ranked #9, and finished the year as the dominant #1. That is some transition, but of course there are mitigating factors. That factor being Ash Barty, who after winning the Australian Open decided to call time on her career. This happened in March and was quite a bombshell in the tennis world and sport in general. Swiatek quickly rose to #2 by March and was thus installed as the new #1 by the WTA. As the saying goes, she has not looked back.
Swiatek has spent every week at #1 since her “promotion.” Which in retrospect is precisely what the WTA needed; a #1 committed to all of the events around the world. This was a welcome change from Barty’s shenanigans as a part-time #1 player over the past eighteen months. For good measure, Swiatek won Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart, Italian Open, French Open, US Open, and San Diego. Prior to becoming #1, Swiatek also won Qatar and reached the semifinal of the Australian Open. Swiatek was voted WTA Player of the Year.
This puts Swiatek in a great place to dominate 2023; as of now there are no rivals that stand out. Ons Jabeur could be a rival at the majors, Sabalenka continues to show potential. But, as of now, Swiatek is well out on her own with a lead of 6000 points in the rankings. I would imagine Swiatek’s goals will be to consolidate her position at the top, and to do much better on grass, especially Wimbledon. Swiatek will also want to keep improving her game, tighten up any issues. One area Swiatek can improve is to mix up her 2nd serve more and not just rely on the kick serve, on grass the slice is just as important. Barring terrible injury, I expect Swiatek to win more Major titles in 2023.
2022 was an incredible break out year for Ons Jabeur. Already by the far the most successful player to come out of North Africa, Jabeur reached the final of both Wimbledon and the US Open.
Which shows that despite the great results and titles on the tour, Jabeur will have a feeling of lack of satisfaction. Of course, only Jabeur can correct this. Jabeur began 2022 as a player not really mentioned as a contender but should go into 2023 as a contender for all of the major tournaments.
Mainly due to the fact Jabeur has a great game. An inventive player, capable of hitting aces, and winners out of nowhere. In 2022 Jabeur won Madrid and the German Open. Jabeur lost the Italian Open and US Open finals to Swiatek plus Wimbledon to Elena Rybakina. That was a painful loss because Jabeur looked in control after taking the 1st set but let things unravel.
Jabeur did carve out another great opportunity with a great run at the US Open, looking excellent in the semifinal against Garcia. However, nerves got the better of her in the final against Swiatek. By the time she was finally playing, she was a set down. Even so, she took it to a 2nd set tiebreak and was in position to get to the 3rd set but didn’t take it. If Jabeur raised her level by 10%, she could have won the final.
This has to be Jabeur’s task in 2023. To win a Major tournament, she has to be more bold in the finals and not let nerves take over. At the age of 28, Jabeur could subconsciously feel her opportunities are diminishing, getting in her way. In modern tennis, she should have a few years left provided she stays fit and healthy. Let’s see how she goes.
Aryna Sabalena had another good year in the WTA and consolidated her position in the Top 5. This despite being banned from participating in Wimbledon (although no points were awarded anyway).
This is where the good news ends. Sabalenka did not win a single title throughout 2022 and came up short in the Grand Slam tournaments. Sabalenka created another good opportunity at the semifinal of the US Open but like 2021 didn’t capitalize. This will leave Sabalenka a little frustrated that she is not fulfilling her potential.
Primarily because Sabalenka has all of the attributes to be a major champion. A good serve, fast and powerful, big groundstrokes and a fair degree of athleticism. At 1 metre 80 (5 ft 11) Sabalenka is about the perfect height for a WTA tennis player. However, despite all of these ticks in the right direction and 10 titles so far, Sabalenka has yet to play in a major final. In 2021 she lost the Wimbledon semifinal to Karolina Pliskova and US Open semifinal to Leylah Fernandez. This year Sabalenka came up short in her US Open semifinal against Swiatek. Each of those semifinals went to three sets but she was unable to get any over the line. Outside of the majors, Sabalenka made the final of the WTA championships but lost out to Caroline Garcia in straight sets.
The problem, as far as I can tell, for Sabalenka is her mental game. She has not matured in that department and is prone to not keeping her cool or composure in big matches. Sabalenka has the ability to win big tournaments in 2023 but it is vital for her to stay focused in the critical moments and not let the occasion get to her. Sabalenka can be a winner in 2023, it is down to her to make the difference.
A player who was a non factor for the first six months of 2022, Garcia went on a remarkable run.
In fact, so remarkable that Garcia began the year ranked #74 and finished the year ranked #4! That is some jump, pretty much all done in a matter of five months. Garcia’s season turned around with her win on grass at the Bad Homborg final defeating Andreescu. Garcia had a good Wimbledon, reaching the 4th round, beating Emma Radcucanu along the way. She ten defeated Swiatek in the Poland Open, claiming the title after beating Ana Bogdan in the final.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Garcia went on to win Cincinnati despite playing the qualifying rounds and backed that up with a semifinal place at the US Open, going down to Jabeur. However, Garcia was not done yet, and went on to win the WTA finals at the beginning of November, taking down Sabalenka in straight sets. This ensured Garcia ended the season in the Top 5 and sets her up nicely for 2023.
So, how did Garcia turn her season around so spectacularly? At the end of 2021, Garcia took on a new coach in Betrand Perret. Garcia plays a particular brand of tennis, and no doubt the second half of the tennis season lends itself to that approach. An aggressive game with lots of short rallies and coming to net to finish points, ideal for grass and hardcourts. Garcia showed she was not afraid to come forward and use her athleticism and volleying ability. Honed for sure through doubles play. After all, Garcia did win the French Open doubles in 2022 with Kristina Mladenovic. Garcia displayed a mean transition game, something which I think is lacking on both the WTA and ATP tours. However, if done well is a very exciting brand of tennis and was good to see.
With her new found confidence, Garcia is well placed to have a good 2023. What does good mean? it means realising her dream of a grand slam title. That will not be easy, but at 29 years of age certainly doable. Garcia has the ability and experience to do it but like Jabeur must overcome her nerves in the big moments of grand slam matches.
Coco Gauff finished the season ranked #7 and was runner-up at the French Open. Not bad for an 18-year-old. We have to remember; players cannot play a full schedule until they are 18. Ensuring we don’t see the sort of burnout from overplaying teenagers as happened so often until the mid 2000s. When the rules were looked at and adjusted, players under 18 now forced to play a part-time schedule.
Gauff had a good Slam year overall. She also reached the round of 16 at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, plus the quarterfinal of the US Open. Like Sabalenka, Gauff did not win a title in 2022 but at 18 is still very much in the development stage. Having said that, it is surprising there are so many players in the top 10 with no titles to show for their efforts. In the French Open final, Gauff was given a going over by Swiatek, especially targeting Gauff’s forehand. It was there for everyone to see where the improvements need to take place.
In fact, it was quite an eye opener to see a top player to have such a suspect forehand. We have become so used to seeing players having a better forehand than backhand. But not in Gauff’s case, who has a great two hand backhand, to go with her athleticism and decent serve. I would add a strong fighting spirit and work ethic. But to get to the next level and win big titles, Gauff will have to improve her forehand considerably.
I was slightly surprised by Gauff’s press conference before the US Open where she talked about hoping to dominate in future. That will not be possible with her forehand as it stands. But she has time to fix it, If Gauff can improve her forehand she can be a serious contender to win titles in 2023.
Other players to watch
Krejcikova was involved in one of the matches of 2022, beating Swiatek in the final of the Ostrava Open. When Krejcikova plays like that she is a joy to watch. Incredible point construction, control, net play. Very reminiscent of David Nalbandian. Unfortunately like Nalbandian Krejcikova can be inconsistent. Let’s hope she can commit much more to singles in 2023 and win more big titles like her French Open in 2021.
Pegula finished the year in the Top 3. Pegula won the title in Guadalajara and made the quarterfinals in three of the four major tournaments. However, Pegula will need something a bit extra if she wants to turn those quarterfinals into semifinals and finals.
Other players to keep an eye on include Maria Sakkari and Danielle Collins. It will also be interesting to see how the likes of Bianca Andreescu progress after years of injuries.
Main Photo from Getty.