Since Serena Williams won her record 23rd Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open, eight of the next 12 Majors saw first-time champions. Two of these – Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu – beat the 38-year-old in the final.
The underlying narrative is two-pronged. What some see as exciting unpredictability, can also be viewed as a lack of consistency; an inconsistency in women’s tennis that has coincided with the fading star of Williams.
Cut to a few years back when Flavia Pennetta won the 2015 US Open as Williams’ dream of a Calendar Slam was astoundingly ended in the semis. Counting the Italian, there were three straight first-time champions with both Angeliqe Kerber (Australian Open) and Garbine Muguruza (French Open) beating the American superstar in the final.
And turn back the clock a little further, when there were four straight new Grand Slam champions in 2011-’12 – Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka.
The storyline was similar. The 2012 and 2016 seasons were seen as a turning point for women’s tennis as fresh champions emerged with relative consistency even as Williams stood firm. The same, however, can’t be said of the post-2017 new champions.
The upheaval in the top echelons of women’s tennis through the last decade has peaked in the last couple of years, putting the WTA tour in a unique place. The trend seems to continue as 2020 began with another new name added to the list when Sofia Kenin won the Australian Open.
First-time champions in 2010s
|Francesca Schiavone||2010||French Open|
|Li Na||2011||French Open|
|Samantha Stosur||2011||US Open|
|Victoria Azarenka||2012||Australian Open|
|Flavia Pennetta||2015||US Open|
|Angelique Kerber||2016||Australian Open|
|Garbine Muguruza||2016||French Open|
|Jelena Ostapenko||2017||French Open|
|Sloane Stephens||2017||US Open|
|Caroline Wozniacki||2018||Australian Open|
|Simona Halep||2018||French Open|
|Naomi Osaka||2018||US Open|
|Ashleigh Barty||2019||French Open|
|Bianca Andreescu||2019||US Open|
|Sofia Kenin||2020||Australian Open|
In the 2010s, 19 different women lifted Major titles with 16 first-time champions. Of these, nine players have won just the one Slam, while the seven players who won two each have not been consistent at the highest level. Be it Maria Sharapova who entered the 2010s as a youngster or, more recently Naomi Osaka, who became the only player after Williams in 2015 to win consecutive Slams.
A revealing insight into this situation is Kerber’s record. When she won Wimbledon 2018, she became the only player to win more than two Grand Slams in the 2010s not named Serena Williams.
The American meanwhile lifted 12 Major titles to first tie and then cross Steffi Graf’s Open Era record. She is now one win away from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
In a way, it is fair to say that her maternity break in 2017 upended the order. Since the 2017 Australian Open, the Slam champions list reads as follows: Jeļena Ostapenko, Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Kerber, Osaka (twice), Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Andreescu and Kenin.
Of these, only Muguruza and Kerber had won a Grand Slam previosly while only Halep and Osaka have won one more since. In fact in 2017, both Ostapenko (French Open) and Stephens (US Open) were unseeded champions, playing seeds Halep and Madison Keys in the final, while Muguruza (Wimbledon) was the 14th seed.
This is in contrast to the 2000s, when the Grand Slam titles were shared between 12 players with nine first-time champions including the likes of Venus Williams and Justine Henin, who went on to win seven Majors each.
First-time champions in 2000s
|Jennifer Capriati||2001||Australian Open|
|Justine Henin||2003||French Open|
|Anastasia Myskina||2004||French Open|
|Svetlana Kuznetsova||2004||US Open|
|Kim Clijsters||2005||US Open|
|Amelie Mauresmo||2006||Australian Open|
|Ana Ivanovic||2008||French Open|
Among the champions in 2000s only two have ended their career with just one Slam – Anastasia Myskina and Ana Ivanovic. It still remains to be seen if the one-time champions from 2010 will add to their tally, but for now Francesca Schiavone, Marion Bartoli, Flavia Pennetta, and Caroline Wozniacki have ended their careers with just the one Major.
If one must, a comparison the men’s side shows the stark contrast as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic continue their unprecedented dominance. There have been only six different Slam champions in 2010s compared to 15 in 2000s. The 2010s saw only three first-time champions – Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, who was the only one-time Major winner in 2010s.
But while the depth and uncertainty on the women’s tour can make for exciting tennis matches (and difficult tournament predictions), it raises an important question – who is the next player to show the consistency and mentality that sets champions apart? One often hears how the Big Three in men’s tennis have made each other better; is women’s tennis missing that level of competition?
For years it was Serena Williams who could be counted as a sure-shot in finals. But with four runner-up finishes since her return, it would appear even the most dominant player on WTA is no longer the threat she once was.
Grand Slam champs since 2000
|Year||Australian Open||French Open||Wimbledon||US Open|
|2000||Lindsay Davenport (3/3)||Mary Pierce (2/2)||Venus Williams (1/7)||Venus Williams (2/7)|
|2001||Jennifer Capriati (1/3)||Jennifer Capriati (2/3)||Venus Williams (3/7)||Venus Williams (4/7)|
|2002||Jennifer Capriati (3/3)||Serena Williams (2/23)||Serena Williams (3/23)||Serena Williams (4/23)|
|2003||Serena Williams (5/23)||Justine Henin (1/7)||Serena Williams (6/23)||Justine Henin (2/7)|
|2004||Justine Henin (3/7)||Anastasia Myskina||Maria Sharapova (1/5)||Svetlana Kuznetsova (1/2)|
|2005||Serena Williams (7/23)||Justine Henin (4/7)||Venus Williams (5/7)||Kim Clijsters (1/4)|
|2006||Amélie Mauresmo (1/2)||Justine Henin (5/7)||Amélie Mauresmo (2/2)||Maria Sharapova (2/5)|
|2007||Serena Williams (8/23)||Justine Henin (6/7)||Venus Williams (6/7)||Justine Henin (7/7)|
|2008||Maria Sharapova (3/5)||Ana Ivanovic||Venus Williams (7/7)||Serena Williams (9/23)|
|2009||Serena Williams (10/23)||Svetlana Kuznetsova (2/2)||Serena Williams (11/23)||Kim Clijsters (2/4)|
|2010||Serena Williams (12/23)||Francesca Schiavone||Serena Williams (13/23)||Kim Clijsters (3/4)|
|2011||Kim Clijsters (4/4)||Li Na (1/2)||Petra Kvitová (1/2)||Samantha Stosur|
|2012||Victoria Azarenka (1/2)||Maria Sharapova (4/5)||Serena Williams (14/23)||Serena Williams (15/23)|
|2013||Victoria Azarenka (2/2)||Serena Williams (16/23)||Marion Bartoli||Serena Williams (17/23)|
|2014||Li Na (2/2)||Maria Sharapova (5/5)||Petra Kvitová (2/2)||Serena Williams (18/23)|
|2015||Serena Williams (19/23)||Serena Williams (20/23)||Serena Williams (21/23)||Flavia Pennetta|
|2016||Angelique Kerber (1/3)||Garbiñe Muguruza (1/2)||Serena Williams (22/23)||Angelique Kerber (2/3)|
|2017||Serena Williams (23/23)||Jeļena Ostapenko||Garbiñe Muguruza (2/2)||Sloane Stephens|
|2018||Caroline Wozniacki||Simona Halep (1/2)||Angelique Kerber (3/3)||Naomi Osaka (1/2)|
|2019||Naomi Osaka (2/2)||Ashleigh Barty||Simona Halep (2/2)||Bianca Andreescu|
At the four big events, Kerber’s form went through extreme swings, Osaka suffered a strange dip after back-to-back titles, Muguruza showed glimpses of resurgence but couldn’t add to her tally, Barty succumbed to unfancied opponents while Andreescu was hit with long injury layoff. Only Halep has been consistent, all things considered, with an actual Major as top seed and an extended run as world No 1.
But not one of the players can claim to start an outright favourite in a Major, as we have seen in the recent past. Of course, all have the potential to be a tour de force on their day, but either due to pressure or a mental block or the genuine talent on the women’s circuit, they have not been able to translate it to regular deep runs at Grand Slams.
Osaka, for one, admitted the stress.
“Mentally it was way more stress and pressure than I could have imagined. I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for that, especially since I’m kind of an overthinker,’ she had said after an early French Open exit in 2019.
For former No 1 Kerber, it was the inability to enjoy with a target on her back. “I was really trying to enjoy, but you really have to schedule your day a bit different than if you were number 20 or number 30 in the world. You have to improve every single tournament, every year, because even if you win a Grand Slam, everyone is looking to beat you,” she had recounted.
Despite these challenges, the hope remains that at some point women’s tennis will see a consistent champion again. It could be the existing champions who could win more Majors or maybe Serena Williams will get over her final block or perhaps a younger player will emulate the American veteran’s dominance.
But to achieve that, the player won’t just need that first Grand Slam trophy but also an element of stability across months and surfaces. The next great women’s tennis champion will be the one who can combine consistency and temperament with talent.