Tuesday, November 26, 2019

2019: The upstarts take the stage

There was a lot going on this season. The coaching carousel spun faster than ever, the Fed Cup format was changed (we’ll experience that in 2020), and two revered veterans—Lucie Safarova and Dominika Cibulkova—retired from professional tennis.

Simona Halep held her own, and Serena Williams was again a force on the tour, reaching two major finals, but the year belonged to the up-and-coming stars of the WTA. 2019 will most likely be remembered for being the year when the rising generation made its stand.

Here are my top ten 2019 occurrences and phenomena, in ascending order:

10. Here they come!: The veterans do leave, but fresh faces appear, and in 2019, they appeared with force. In addition to Bianca Andreescu, there was Amanda Anisimova, Marie Bouzkova, Dayana Yastremska, Marketa Vondrousova (who reached the final of the French Open and then disappeared because of injury), and, of course, Coco Gauff.

9. Just how great is Diede de Great?: As it turns out—really great. The Dutch wheelchair champion just missed winning a double grand slam (there’s always next season, and don’t be surprised if she pulls it off ) when she lost the Wimbledon singles final, but she received quite a consolation prize.: This season, De Groot became the first wheelchair player in history to achieve the double career slam.

8. No dominance, but plenty of thrills: This season, several doubles teams rose to the top. Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai won the Australian Open, finally lifing Stosur’s Australia curse. Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic won the French Open, and that victory sent Mladenovic to the number 1 spot in the rankings. She would lose that ranking later, but she wouldn’t lose her shine: She and Babos won the WTA Finals, then she went crazy on Australia and was the dominant factor in France’s Fed Cup championship victory.

Then Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova won Wimbledon. This was Stryova’s first major doubles title, and she also reached the semifinals in singles. The Czech star would end the year with the number 1 ranking, a beautiful and fitting designation for a beloved player who plans to retire soon.

Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka won the Sunshine Double, then—to emphasize just how good they are on hard courts—they won the U.S. Open.

7. So much for “letdown”: Often, when a young player wins a major, she then has to face being an international celebrity as well as being one of the “hunted” on the tour, and it takes time to make adjustments to these intense changes. Not Naomi Osaka. Yes, she has struggled with the transition, but that didn’t stop the 2018 U.S. Open champion from winning the 2019 Australian Open. That’s impressive.

6. Allez, baby!: They did it! Team France, led by a near-perfect Kiki Mladenovic, who pulled off a hat trick of wins for her country, secured its first Fed Cup championship since 2003. And they did it as the “away” team, defeating host Australia 3-2 in a very exciting weekend of play.

5. Wait—that was clay?: Anyone who watches women’s tennis knew that Ash Barty was very likely on her way to winning a major in singles, but probably no one—including Barty—would have picked the French Open as the site of her debut victory. But win it she did, defeating five USA players along the way (I mention that because it’s a rather unusual occurrence that anyone, much less the eventual champion, would defeat five players from the same country).

4. As if we needed more proof
:. After she won Indian Wells, Bianca Andreescu’s fortunes went down because of injury, and she had to take several months off. No big deal—she returned and immediately won the Rogers Cup. Then, just to put an exclamation point on the whole phenomenom, she won the U.S. Open, and she did it by defeating Serena Williams in the final. Andreescu is the first Canadian to win a major.

3. Triumph of the heart: Simona Halep doesn’t exactly make it look easy. The talented Romanian can be her own worst enemy, and she has to exert a great deal of physical energy in many matches. But Simona is nevertheless her own version of tough. It took her three tries to win the French Open, but she did it. Last year, she almost won the Australian Open. This year, Halep brought her never-say-die brand of geometric tennis to London, and won Wimbledon. Along the way, she knocked out the likes of teen phenom Coco Gauff, Elina Svitolina and—in the final—Serena Williams.

2. Behold the North Star: Bianca Andreescu appears to be a force of nature. She’s quick, she’s clever, she specializes in getting herself out of tricky situations (which she often creates), she’s highly entertaining, and—much of the time—she makes it all look pretty easy. The young Canadian star’s rise has been, without exaggeration, meteoric. For much of 2018, when she made her tour debut, Andreescu wasn’t even in the top 200; at the beginning of the 2019 season, she was ranked number 153 in the world. And then she ripped through the tour with such force that she rose to the rank of number 4 in the world (she is currently ranked number 5). She also won eight matches against top 10 players. And, I should add, she’s only 19 years old.

In September, I wrote of Andreescu: “…she is so many things--a good server, hard-hitting, dramatic, inventive, instinctive, and mentally tough (while not always seeming to be so).”

She’s also very injury-prone. After winning Indian Wells, she sustained an injury and was out for several months (this wasn’t the first time her brief career had been derailed by injury). But then she returned to the tour and promptly won the Rogers Cup. Andreescu topped her year off by winning the U.S. Open, but—once again—injury took her out of the WTA Finals.

I’m going to go with the belief that Andreescu and her team will figure out her injury issues. If that happens, it will be quite interesting to see what she does. In addition to having a number of athletic skills and tennis skills in particular, the Canadian star also has what so many talented players don’t have—confidence. I think this is going to be quite a ride.

1. The party never ends: When Ash Barty first came on the tour, I was struck by her amazing doubles skills. Then she went away to play cricket, and when she came back, she was invested in both doubles and singles. Now she is number 1 in the world. Barty has outstanding skills that she can employ from just about any position on the court, and she goes about her business in a calm, straightforward way, reserving her energy for hitting the ball and moving around the court.

Whereas Andreescu’s rise has been head-spinningly quick, Barty’s has been the product of a trek on a very winding road. From young doubles star to professional cricket player to notable singles player to number 1 in the world, the Australian has done it all her way. In addition to winning the French Open and ending the year as number 1, Barty also won the WTA Finals. In addition, she won Miami and Birmingham, the Rome doubles title (with Vika Azarenka), and was the major factor in Australia’s journey to the Fed Cup final. What a year!


colt13 said...

Great recap.

This points out to me that Halep's Wimbledon run is probably underrated. Who knew at that point that Gauff would win a title, and that Williams and Svitolina would reach another big final?

Diane said...

Thanks, colt. And yes, it was perhaps even a stranger year than usual. I’m looking forward to Vondrousova’s 2020 season. I was impressed with her Roland Garros performance.

I’m still disappointed that Petra didn’t finally get her Australian Open trophy. So close.

Todd.Spiker said...

Always love your Top 10's! ;)

As far as de Groot goes (she just swept the singles/doubles at the season-ending Masters events, too), it'll have to be '21 when she tries to go 8-for-8 in the slams since '20 is an Olympic/Paralympic year. The Tokyo games replace the U.S. Open WC competition on the schedule. I've never quite understood why they willingly give up a major with this sort of scheduling, but obviously WC tennis doesn't have anything to do with that (see Buis' upcoming "forced" retirement due to the sport changing the "qualifications" to be eligible for wheelchair athletics in order to line up with the Paralympic rules and keep the sport as a medal competition in the games).

Still, who knows what sort of run DtheG might be on come '20. After all, she's now gone 29-0 (s/d) since losing that Wimbledon singles final. That says *a lot* about her mentality, I'd say. It's almost Serenaesque (and Vergeerian, I suppose). ;)

On Barty vs. the U.S. (I guess she warmed up for Paris by dominating that 1st Rd. FC tie vs. Rinaldi's squad in February), her string of opponents (esp. at RG) also says much about the new debt and game style of the U.S. women competing on tour. It wasn't that long ago that she wouldn't have had the opportunity to face so many U.S. woman because they wouldn't have lasted as long in or (over)populated the draw as they do now, let alone doing so on clay.

Yastremska, with Bajin in her corner, is surely going to be the player being predicted by many to the "the Andreescu" of '20. Could there be a race for Ukrainian #1 this coming year? Hmmm.

Todd.Spiker said...

...run DtheG might be on come **2021**.

...also says much about the new **depth** and games style of the U.S. woman. ;)

Diane said...

Ah, I forgot about the Paralympic scheduling :( And I love the word “Vergeerian!” I’m also very angry about Buis—do you know if she’s taking legal action?

And you make a very good point—Barty beat all the U.S. players, but at least they were there to beat. I continue to keep my eye on Kenin, btw.

Todd.Spiker said...

I haven't seen anything, but I guess she has until the end of next year to see if something changes. Still hard to believe she won't meet the new "classification" requirements, considering she uses a wheelchair in daily life.

At least the Dutch federation's protest allowed the changes to not go into effect *before* the games, so she'll be able to compete next season *and* in Tokyo. I think she wasn't going to play much beyond '20, based on what she said. But she wanted to be able to pick and choose her "goodbye events." Now, they'll *all* include goodbyes.

Diane said...

I would love to see her take them on, if they don't change the stupid new rule. I just don't get it at all.