The year 2019 was phenomenal for women’s tennis. Long labelled inconsistent and volatile, 2019 showed the brighter side of this unpredictability – a consistent crop of rising stars that took the tennis world by storm and entertaining tennis from a new breed of competitors.
The year 2019, the final of the decade, in many ways broke the pattern of the nine years before it on the Women’s Tennis Association. For the best part of the decade, Serena Williams reigned supreme, winning 12 Major titles but the final Grand Slam saw her finish as a runner-up to a teenager making her main draw debut. It was one of the most striking storylines in a year full of them.
The four Grand Slam winners were from four different continents, for only the second time in history and Andreescu – who started her year as world No 178 – was the only player to win more than one Premier (Mandatory and 5) title in singles. But each of the winners did enough through the season to be in the Top 10.
In short, it was a year of sensation tempered with consistency, a great balance for WTA. Here’s a look the year’s biggest talking points, in no particular order.
Ashleigh Barty ended last season as world No 15 and winning the biggest trophy of her career – the WTA Elite Trophy which is the second-tier season-ending tournament, for players ranked in the top 20 who are not playing the WTA Finals.
Logically, she said her aim was to break in to the top 10 in 2019. Unwritten, of course, were the more regular goals: make a deep run at a Grand Slam, win a big Premier title. Nothing too ambitious. It hasn’t been too long since the one-time prodigy returned to tennis after taking a break for mental health and fatigue reasons.
Cue 2019 and the 23-year-old is the world No 1, French Open champion and the winner of the biggest purse in tennis.
The former cricketer’s breakout season included her first Slam quarter-final in Melbourne, her first Premier Mandatory title at Miami Open, her first Major at Roland Garros… and the WTA Finals on tournament debut. A big leap from the Elite Trophy in China and a much more vital mental leap as a competitor.
The Gauff Factor
Coco Gauff and team wear an interesting kit at many tournaments – with the line’ Call me Coco. It’s perhaps a reference to her preferred name, given her official name is Cori, the name she was referred to from the time she became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon. But after her heroics in the last four months, it is unlikely that anyone will forget her name.
In her first main draw Grand Slam match, she beat Venus Williams. In her third, she saved match points to win and reach the second week Wimbledon as a qualifier. She later reached the third round at the US Open, where she was involved in an emotional match with Naomi Osaka. The teen then won her first WTA singles title as a lucky loser. She already has two WTA doubles title this year with Catherine McNally. She started the year as world No 875 but at 68, is the youngest Top 100 player. She is only 15 and in her first year as a professional.
Additionally, her fans and social media followers now include Michelle Obama, Jaden Smith, Magic Johnson, Samuel L Jackson, Joel Embiid among others. Tennis’ story of 2019? Call it Coco.
Naomi Osaka lives a roller-coaster
When Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open title in a thrilling final against Petra Kvitova, she became the first woman since Serena in 2015 to win consecutive Grand Slam titles and the first since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win first two Majors back-to-back.
She soon wore the world No 1 crown. And then came the cross.
She split with coach Sascha Bajin, which gave rise to its own controversy. She was unable to defend her Indian Wells title. As the top seed at French Open, she was out in the third round. At Wimbledon, she was in tears and asked to leave the press conference after losing her opener. It wasn’t a good time for her and she admitted to crying a lot more this year.
But the Japanese player turned it around in the last few months. She won the China Open and Japan Open back-to-back. She had to withdraw from the WTA Finals with injury but a year-end world No 3 ranking will actually go down as a positive result for the 22-year-old.
Bianca Andreescu’s rise defies belief
In January, you would have been forgiven if you didn’t know Canadian Bianca Vanessa Andreescu, who beat Wozniacki and Venus to reach the Auckland Open finals. By September, the 19-year-old was Canada’s most successful singles tennis player with the US Open title, getting a welcome home parade from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the span of a year, Andreescu went from No 173 to No 5, won her first Premier Mandatory title (Indian Wells) and Major on tournament debut. along with the Rogers Cup at home. She didn’t lose her first eight matches to players in the top 10 and was unbeaten in matches she completed from March to September.
This feat is even more remarkable given she missed about five months of the year with a shoulder injury. She retired after the first round at French Open and didn’t even play Wimbledon before ending her season midway through a WTA Finals match with a knee injury.
The 19-year-old’s season – both the highs and the lows – defied logic and belief. If she could do this as a teen with barely any experience, imagine what a fitter Andreescu can do in the future.
Young and free (and consistent)
The year 2019 has been characterised by the sensational and more importantly consistent rise of youngsters. The two new world No 1 players – Osaka and Barty – are both under 23.
A 21-year-old Osaka won her second successive Major beating veteran Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. The French Open saw 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova reach a Major final as another teen Amanda Anisimova stunned defending champion Simona Halep.
Gauff stunned the tennis world with her composure and capability at 15 while Andreescu showed her unmatched big-game nous. Belinda Bencic, 22, came back from injury and rose from No 37 to No 8, winning the Dubai Premier 5 title with a superb streak over Top 10 players and reaching the WTA finals.
According to The New York Times, the average age of WTA 2019 singles title winners was 23 years 4 months, which is the youngest average since 2008. An uplifting end to this decade of tennis.
Halep had a year like Halep’s game
Starting the year as world No 1, a year-end rank of 4 with a Grand Slam title may not seem like a bad deal for Simona Halep. But it was underwhelming given the first half. In a run that would have astonished even her staunchest supporters, 28-year-old showed grit to win her second Major at Wimbledon. She beat Serena Williams in a one-sided final, fulfilling her mother’s long-held wish, weeks after losing at French Open as defending champion.
But in classic Halep fashion, the rest of her was erratic like her game. She didn’t win any other title despite deep runs and continued to lose at the big moments despite all her experience. Coach Darren Cahill, who will be back in her box in 2020, already lost at it her once during the WTA Finals. Can they make her a consistent big-match winner is the big question.
Svitolina’s ‘reverse’ season
Elina Svitolina won four titles in 2018, including the WTA finals, but never went beyond the quarter-finals at Slams.
In 2019, her season was the other way round. She reached her first Major semi-final at Wimbledon and followed it at the US Open. But the Ukrainian didn’t win a single title, for the first time since 2012. Her only final was the WTA Finals, where she lost to Barty after going unbeaten.
Her consistency has ensured she stays in the top 10 again but the lack of finals and titles is an anomaly in 2019.
Serena’s strange stumbling block
Serena Williams, at 38, is still in the WTA Top 10 despite playing only eight tournaments in 2019. The 23-time Grand Slam champion continues to consistently reach finals. She is fit enough to play doubles along with singles at Majors. But this version of Serena somehow has forgotten to win titles.
Like in 2018, the American reached the final of both Wimbledon and US Open in 2019. Like 2018, she went down in straight sets both times. Unlike 2018, it didn’t feel like a shock anymore.
Serena reached one more final, the Roger Cup, where she got injured midway. At the Australian Open, she lost after having a match point in the quarters.
The veteran’s inability to win big matches ever since returning from maternity break is a question we will take into 2020, even as she perseveres in her effort to win the elusive 24th Major.