Grand Slam tennis returned after more than a half a year with the ‘bubble-wrapped’ US Open but while the world around us changed, not everything in tennis changed along with it.
On the first day of second-round action in New York, the men’s and women’s top seeds matches were on simultaneously, but the result could not have been more different from each other and similar to so many Majors in the recent times.
While Novak Djokovic recovered from a dropped set to extend his unbeaten run in 2020 to 25, Karolina Pliskova was crushed in straight sets 6-1, 7-6(2) by world No 50 Caroline Garcia.
It was the biggest upset of the US Open so far, but, for many reasons, it didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Pliskova, an erratic player, is the top seed and a former finalist at Flushing Meadows. But the world No 3 was bumped up the charts because the top two Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep opted out of the tournament due to safety reasons. She was up against Garcia, a former world No 4.
Additionally, in a pandemic-affected year, match practice is scarce and Pliskova was coming off a first-round exit at the US Open tune-up Cincinnati event. Even before the hiatus, she had a string of early exits in Melbourne, Dubai and Doha.
More importantly, the inconsistency at the top of women’s tennis is a long-time factor now and higher-ranked player exiting Slams early no longer has the same emotion as a shock upset. Even when the top seed exits on the third day of a Major. In fact, one now expects it and the relatively carnage-less first-round actually surprised fans.
The debate over this unpredictability / excitement / inconsistency – however ones wants to perceive it – has been long standing as well. Whether it is the depth of the draw, the best-of-three format, women’s tennis at Grand Slams has been a rollercoaster in the last few years and the ranking of the top seed generally follows the same patterns.
Since 2016, there have been six first-time world No 1s in WTA while Serena and Caroline Wozniacki were the only old names to feature in the list. While Angelique Kerber, Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty have all been successful at Slams – Pliskova the only one without a title – none have been consistent enough.
A look at the numbers from the last 10 years shows up some intriguing insights into this phenomenon.
Since 2011, only two top-seeded women not named Serena Williams have gone on to win the Grand Slam: Simona Halep at French Open in 2018 and Victoria Azarenka at 2013 Australian Open. (Serena as won a Major as top seed seven times in this period, while losing eight times.
(Note: Scroll sideways or swipe right to view all columns in the tables below)
|Grand Slam||Top Seed||Tournament Result||Eventual Champion||Winner's seeding|
|2020 US Open||Karolina Pliskova||Second round||To be decided||To be decided|
|2020 Australian Open||Ashleigh Barty||Semi-finals||Sofia Kenin||14|
|2019 US Open||Naomi Osaka||Fourth round||Bianca Andreescu||15|
|2019 Wimbledon||Ashleigh Barty||Fourth round||Simona Halep||7|
|2019 French Open||Naomi Osaka||Third round||Ashleigh Barty||8|
|2019 Australian Open||Simona Halep||Fourth round||Naomi Osaka||4|
|2018 US Open||Simona Halep||First round||Naomi Osaka||20|
|2018 Wimbledon||Simona Halep||Third round||Angelique Kerber||11|
|2018 French Open||Simona Halep||Champion||Simona Halep||1|
|2018 Australian Open||Simona Halep||Final||Caroline Wozniacki||2|
|2017 US Open||Karolina Pliskova||Quarter-finals||Sloane Stephens||Unseeded|
|2017 Wimbledon||Angelique Kerber||Fourth round||Garbine Muguruza||14|
|2017 French Open||Angelique Kerber||First round||Jelena Ostapenko||Unseeded|
|2017 Australian Open||Angelique Kerber||Fourth round||Serena Williams||2|
|2016 US Open||Serena Williams||Semi-finals||Angelique Kerber||2|
|2016 Wimbledon||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2016 French Open||Serena Williams||Final||Garbine Muguruza||4|
|2016 Australian Open||Serena Williams||Final||Angelique Kerber||7|
|2015 US Open||Serena Williams||Semi-finals||Flavia Pennetta||26|
|2015 Wimbledon||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2015 French Open||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2015 Australian Open||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2014 US Open||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2014 Wimbledon||Serena Williams||Third round||Petra Kvitova||6|
|2014 French Open||Serena Williams||Second round||Maria Sharapova||7|
|2014 Australian Open||Serena Williams||Fourth round||Li Na||4|
|2013 US Open||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2013 Wimbledon||Serena Williams||Fourth round||Marion Bartoli||15|
|2013 French Open||Serena Williams||Champion||Serena Williams||1|
|2013 Australian Open||Victoria Azarenka||Champion||Victoria Azarenka||1|
|2012 US Open||Victoria Azarenka||Final||Serena Williams||4|
|2012 Wimbledon||Maria Sharapova||Fourth round||Serena Williams||6|
|2012 French Open||Victoria Azarenka||Fourth round||Maria Sharapova||2|
|2012 Australian Open||Caroline Wozniacki||Quarter-finals||Victoria Azarenka||3|
|2011 US Open||Caroline Wozniacki||Semi-finals||Samantha Stosur||9|
|2011 Wimbledon||Caroline Wozniacki||Fourth round||Petra Kvitova||8|
|2011 French Open||Caroline Wozniacki||Third round||Li Na||6|
|2011 Australian Open||Caroline Wozniacki||Semi-finals||Kim Clijsters||3|
As the table shows, the top seeds at a Grand Slam have rarely won the title, even when multiple Major winners such as Maria Sharapova or Li Na were playing. Wozniacki was infamous for being a Slam-less world no 1 till she won her first in 2018. Halep had a similar distinction and is still erratic as ever with two Majors to her name, with first-round exit as top seed.
But it also shows in the first half of the last decade, the eventual winner was generally a player in the top 10 of a loaded field. Of course, even then there were exceptions like Marion Bartoli or Flavia Pennetta winning the lone title.
Now, the field has become a lot more open in the last few years as multiple young Grand Slam champions have emerged but have been unable to sustain the momentum.
We saw a teen champion in Bianca Andreescu, seeded 15th, but she suffered an injury layoff soon after. Naomi Osaka was 20 years old and the 20th seed when she won US Open and then the fourth seed as she showed hope with consecutive Majors. But with the world No 1 ranking came pressure and she went downhill as top seed. There was a similar trend with Barty and Halep.
Both Osaka and Andreescu played their finals against Serena Williams, who in a way has contributed to this trend. The presence, or rather the absence of a player like Serena, is one of the bigger reasons behind this trend.
Since her last Grand Slam and subsequent maternity break in 2017, there has been a general upheaval at Majors which continued even after her return and saw her end up with four runner-up plates.
Eight of the next 12 Majors since her Australian Open win saw first-time champions. Two of these beat the 38-year-old in the final while two more – Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens – were unseeded champions, both in the same year.
In fact, in the year she took a break, there were a record five world No 1 players in the WTA, highlighting her dominance in the last decade. A look at the top seeds in the table above will also suffice.
But with Serena, seeded third at US Open, a shadow of her former self since return to the circuit as a mother, the draw has been blown wide open. There are multiple talented women vying for the title and this competition in reflected in the mixed results of every Grand Slam. And this is not a bad thing.
The last four Slams finals show this best: former world No 1 Muguruza was the runner-up in Melbourne while teen Marketa Vondrousova was the surprise finalist in Paris while Serena was the runner-up in London and New York.
With the way things are going at US Open, another roller-coaster women’s final should not surprise anyone.