The 2021 WTA year went as expected – world No. 3 Naomi Osaka won her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in February and No. 1 Ashleigh Barty became the first Aussie woman in 41 years to triumph at Wimbledon in July.
Or… the 2021 WTA year was outrageously unpredictable and set the standard for unlikely major title winners with a 25-year-old known mostly as a doubles specialist, Barbora Krejcikova, becoming the French Open champion in June and an 18-year-old, unheralded qualifier, Emma Raducanu, winning the US Open in September.
If there’s a choice between which of those two statements best represents the 2021 zeitgeist, the evidence weighs heavily in favour of the latter.
It has been 18 Grand Slam events since 23-time champion Serena Williams won her last major at the 2017 Australian Open (it will now be 19 with news she won’t be at Melbourne Park next month). And at most of those events, she has still been either the favourite or among the top-three picks only to see 11 first-time winners emerge to take the title.
As well, five of the last eight Grand Slam champions would have been almost inconceivable as a potential winner at the start of their respective new seasons – 19-year-old (No. 109) Bianca Andreescu at the 2019 US Open, 21-year-old (No. 14) Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open, 19-year-old (No. 59) Iga Swiatek at the 2020 French Open, (No. 65) Krejcikova at the 2021 French Open and (No. 345) Raducanu at the 2021 US Open.
Ranked No. 150 playing in only her second Grand Slam event, and without a single match win at a regular WTA tour event, Raducanu was the blockbuster revelation of the year beating a just-turned 19-year-old who was a similarly surprising finalist, No. 73 Leylah Fernandez, in the Flushing Meadows final.
It was astounding that Raducanu won 10 matches without losing a set to become a sports-world sensation and the darling of her women’s tennis success-starved British compatriots. But, in the aftershock of all the attention she has received, she went a modest 2-3 at subsequent October and November tournaments in the U.S. (Indian Wells), Romania and Austria. That raises questions about when she will again display the magic of her US Open breakthrough, or if indeed she can ever again achieve such phenomenal brilliance.
Barty and Krejcikova were 2021’s blue-chip players after Osaka had a shaky start to the clay-court season and then announced that she would not be doing press conferences at Roland Garros. That led to her withdrawing after her first match in Paris and just playing three more events (5-3) for the rest of the year – the Tokyo Olympics, Cincinnati and the US Open where she served for the match at 6-5 in the second set in the third round before losing 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4 to Fernandez. Her year-end ranking was No. 13 and she remains a question mark going forward as she struggles to find her equilibrium as a professional athlete.
Barty with five titles, including Wimbledon, Miami and Cincinnati, called it a year after a third-round loss to Shelby Rogers at the US Open. It was easy to sympathize with a young woman (25), who finished No. 1 for the third consecutive year, yearning for home after being away from her native Australia for more than six months during trying pandemic times.
Krejcikova, an accomplished doubles stalwart who had ranked No. 1 and has now won 10 titles, including gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and three Grand Slams with Czech compatriot Katarina Siniakova, used her powerful ground strokes and all-round court savvy to finish the year with titles in Strasbourg, at Roland Garros and in Prague, achieving a No. 5 ranking.
Aryna Sabalenka, who wound up at No. 2, won tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Madrid and finally had notable Grand Slam event results as a semi-finalist at both Wimbledon and the US Open. A case of COVID-19 and quarantining before Indian Wells in October may have prevented the monster-hitting but temperamental Belorussian from even greater success in 2021.
Garbine Muguruza held two match points on Osaka in a round-of-16 at the Australian Open in February before losing 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a match that could have changed her year. She book-ended 2021 with big titles in Dubai in March and then the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November to wind up ranked No. 3.
At No. 4 was Karolina Pliskova who won no titles but was a Wimbledon finalist as well as a runner-up at the Italian Open (an embarrassing 6-0, 6-0 loss to Swiatek) and at the National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Montreal to unlikely champion Camila Giorgi.
The players ranked from No. 6 to No. 10 were all top-10 debutantes – Maria Sakkari, Anett Kontaveit, Paula Badosa, Swiatek and Ons Jabeur. All had moments but not enough significant success to crack the top-five.
As for the Canadian players, Fernandez not only made a charmed run to the US Open final – defeating No. 2 Sabalenka, No. 3 Osaka, No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 17 Angelique Kerber – but also won her first career tournament title in Monterrey (WTA 250) in March, winding up ranked No. 24. Her drive and intensity have few equals on the tour.
Andreescu returned to action after missing the entirety of 2020 and had a 17-12 match record that included reaching the Miami Open final in April against Barty before retiring with an ankle injury trailing 6-3, 4-0. A case of COVID-19 before the Madrid Open in May further disrupted her spring and first-round exits at both the French Open and Wimbledon were later partially compensated for by reaching the round-of-16 at the US Open, the site of her memorable victory in 2019. A disappointing year ended with a second match loss at Indian Wells to Kontaveit in October, a No. 46 ranking and news that she will not be going to Australia in January.
Genie Bouchard, 27, reached a final in Guadalajara in March, did not play after the following week in Monterrey and underwent shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff in June. With her ranking now at No. 251, she is dedicated to making a comeback in 2022.
Rebecca Marino, 31 next week, improved her ranking from No. 251 to No. 146 in a year of pandemic disruptions that saw her shine at the National Bank Open in Montreal – upsetting No. 26 Madison Keys and No. 31 Paula Badosa.
In doubles, 29-year-old Gabriela Dabrowski reached a career-high No. 5 ranking in October and made three finals – Madrid, San Jose and Cincinnati. But her highlight was winning the National Bank Open in Montreal with Brazilian partner Luisa Stefani.
Sharon Fichman, 31, started the doubles year at No. 56 and finished No. 22 boosted by a prestigious victory in May at the Italian Open with partner Giuliana Olmos of Mexico. There they won four of their five rounds, including the final, in match tiebreaks.
The year ended with the Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) winning the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup in Prague – although there was controversy in the final against Switzerland when team No. 5 Ludmilla Samsonova was a late substitute – 40 minutes after a weary Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had been named RTF’s No. 1 and 20 minutes before she was to play (and beat) Belinda Bencic. It just so happened Samsonova had a 2-0 record in 2021 matches against the Swiss No. 1, who had won the singles gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
After defeating Serbia 4-0 in Kraljevo in April, led by Fernandez and Marino, Canada won its opening round at the BJK Cup Finals in Prague in November with Francoise Abanda coming up big to beat Fiona Ferro of France and Marino and Dabrowski clinching the tie with a doubles victory. Team Canada was then eliminated when it suffered a 3-0 loss to RTF in the second tie.
Current WTA rankings still include some results from before 2021 but they will return to the normal 12-month rolling cycle at the end of February, 2022.
Feature Photo: camerawork usa