Winning a Grand Slam is easy, defending it is harder.

This has been the theme in women’s tennis over the last few years and we witnessed it yet again at the ongoing Australian Open, when Sofia Kenin’s title defence came to an end in the second round. Estonian giant-killer Kaia Kanepi beat her 6-3, 6-2 in just 64 minutes and the 22-year-old American made a tearful exit.

It was the just the latest in first-time Major champions finding it hard to defend their crown or added another one to their name.

In the last 20 Grand Slams – stretching back to the 2015 US Open – there have been 12 first-time champions in women’s tennis. None of them have been able to defend their title the next year, although a few of them have gone on to win another one and even fewer have captured a third.

The last woman to defend her Grand Slam title, to little surprise, is Serena Williams back when she won Wimbledon in 2016. She missed her title defence in 2017 due to maternity leave – a break that virtually changed the face of women’s tennis. Since she won her record 23rd Grand Slam at the 2017 Australian Open, nine of the next 14 Majors saw first-time champions.

Data check: With first-time Grand Slam winners galore, women’s tennis searches for a consistent star

Whether it is a direct correlation or no, fact remains that no other woman has been able to defend their Major title. Indeed, the last woman not named Serena to defend a Grand Slam title was Victoria Azarenka, at the Australian Open back in 2013.

Here’s a look at the Major champions and how their defence turned out:

Grand Slam champions and their title defence

Player  Grand Slam victory  Grand Slam defence 
Sofia Kenin  Australian Open 2020 Out in second round 
Bianca Andreescu US Open 2019 Missed due to injury 
Simona Halep  Wimbledon 2019 Tournament cancelled 
Ashleigh Barty  French Open 2019 Missed due to pandemic 
Naomi Osaka  Australian Open 2019 Out in the third round 
Naomi Osaka  US Open 2018 Out in the fourth round
Angelique Kerber Wimbledon 2018 Out in the second round
Simona Halep  French Open 2018 Out in the quarter-finals 
Caroline Wozniacki  Australian Open 2018  Out in the third round 
Sloane Stephens  US Open 2017 Out in the quarter-finals 
Garbine Muguruza  Wimbledon 2017 Out in the second round 
Jelena Ostapenko  French Open 2017  Out in the first round
Serena Williams  Australian Open 2017  Missed due to maternity break
Angelique Kerber US Open 2016 Out in the first round
Serena Williams  Wimbledon 2016 Missed due to maternity break
Garbine Muguruza  French Open 2016  Out in the fourth round
Angelique Kerber  Australian Open 2016  Out in the fourth round
Flavia Pennetta  US Open 2015 Retired from tennis end of season 
Serena Williams  Wimbledon 2015  Title defended in 2016

As the table shows, Slam holders have had a rough time the following year, with early exits across the board and not a single one even reaching the next final.

Of course there are exceptions, such as Flavia Pennetta who retired after her first and only Major win, Ashleigh Barty who chose not to travel to Europe due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Williams, who missed out after giving birth.

But the trend has been unexpected, and often shock exits, be it 15-year-old Coco Gauff crushing Osaka in Melbourne or Osaka herself knocking out Angelique Kerber as a rising star in New York. The likes of Kerber and Garbine Muguruza have lost to virtually unknown names while Caroline Wozniacki ran into Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko was unable to recapture her Slam-winning form.

One obvious reason for this slide, as Kenin admitted, is the pressure the spotlight brings. Here’s what a tearful Kenin, who had reached the final of French Open as well last year and was named WTA Player of the 2020, said after her exit:

I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure. I mean, obviously I haven’t experienced that. I obviously felt like I’m not there 100 percent physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off. It’s not good. I did put pressure on myself there (Roland Garros), but not as much as here. I feel like everyone was always asking me, ‘Do you see yourself getting there and winning again?’ The Australia trip, I feel like that was something that I had my eye on. I knew I was going to have pressure.I knew I was going to have emotions, nerves, everything all together. I felt really nervous. I haven’t felt my game for I don’t know how long.

— Sofia Kenin

As much as we praise the competitive nature and glorious uncertainty of the women’s draw, it is a factor of the pressure players are put under to maintain consistency both internally and externally. It can be said that consistency is a basic expectation from someone who has won a Grand Slam, but with the increasingly younger pool and the scrutiny social media brings, it cannot be easy to be a high level throughout.

An example of this would be the arc of Naomi Osaka over the last two years. She became the first woman since (you guessed it) Serena Williams to win back-to-back Grand Slam titles when she lifted her first two at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open. She climbed up to world No 1 and looked set to be a star for the long haul. But pressure reared its head and she lost in the third and first round respectively at 2019 French Open and Wimbledon, slipping down the rankings. It was only the pandemic-induced break in 2020 that helped her regroup and she responded by winning her title Major at US Open.

Of course, her run at the Australian Open remains to be seen but as of now, she is on an unbeaten streak after winning in New York and missing Roland Garros, where unseeded teen Iga Swiatek won her first Major.

As things stand, it might just be a bigger surprise if either of them adds to the tally than a completely new name emerging as the winner. For now, the wait for a successful women’s Grand Slam defence continues.