Creator: Robert Deutsch | Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports Copyright: USA TODAY Sports WTA

2020 was another year of surprising upsets and new Grand Slam champions on the WTA Tour. As Serena Williams continues her long stretch without a Major title, we are seeing other young stars rise up at the biggest tournaments. In the first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open, we got a new Major champion in Sofia Kenin, who beat Garbine Muguruza in the final.

The second Grand Slam was supposed to be the French Open, usually played at the end of May. Unfortunately, the coronavirus put a stop to the WTA Tour in March, just like it did all sports in the world. The women’s tour was shut down for about 5 months, when it finally returned on August 3rd at the Palermo Ladies Open. In the first tournament back from the hiatus, it was current number 42 in the world rankings, Fiona Ferro, who captured the title, defeating Anett Kontaveit in straight sets in the final.

Creator: Clive Mason | Credit: Getty Images Copyright: 2019 Getty Images WTA
PARIS, FRANCE – MAY 27: Sofia Kenin of The United States serves during her ladies singles first round match against Giulia Gatto-Monticone during Day two of the 2019 French Open at Roland Garros on May 27, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

The first Major coming back from the break was not the French Open, which is always the second Major played. Instead, it was the US Open that was second in 2020. The tournament was held in a bubble environment, with no fans allowed in the stadium. In the end, it was Naomi Osaka capturing her second US Open title, and her third Major for her career. She has now won a Major in three consecutive years, and is beginning to separate herself from the other top players in the world.

The final Major of the year was the French Open. Wimbledon is usually the third Grand Slam event held each year, but was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. As the US Open and French Open scrambled to host their tournaments in 2020 to avoid major losses, it was Wimbledon who was actually able to receive a huge amount by not hosting their tournament. Wimbledon had been paying $2 million each year for the last 17 years for pandemic insurance. It proved to be a great investment, as Wimbledon will receive a pay-out of over $140 million because of this insurance.

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With Wimbledon canceled, the French Open was the third and final Major of the year. It began at the end of September, four months later than when it is usually scheduled to be played. Sofia Kenin proved that the Australian Open was no fluke, as she battled her way to the final of the French Open. However, it was an even younger player on the tour, one that not many had heard of before this tournament, that took home the title at the French. Iga Swiatek, a 19 year old from Poland, was dominant throughout the tournament, as she did not drop a set in the entire event. In the final, she defeated Kenin in straight sets while only dropping five games.

The WTA Tour continues to be wide open, with no one at the top dominating the game. The list of first time Major champions continue to rise, with only a couple able to capture a second. Names like Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko, and Sloane Stephens all became first time Major champions in the last three years, but none have been able to repeat that success and take over the sport.

Will Kenin and Swiatek remain with one Major title as well, or can they get to a place where only some have reached. Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, and Garbine Muguruza have all won their first and second Major title in the last four years, and although have not taken over the sport yet, they have proven that the first time was no luck. So, as we put an end to 2020, let us look ahead at the biggest storylines surrounding the WTA Tour in 2021.

Serena’s Chase For 24

Serena Williams will have not won a Major title in four years by the time the 2021 Australian Open begins in February. It would not be right to say that her level has dropped significantly, as she did make four Grand Slam finals within these last four years. However, her level has dipped recently. She turned 39 years old in September, and will be 40 by the time she plays the 2021 US Open. Not many have played in their forties, and to play at a high level at that age has never been done in the women’s game before.

Creator: Danielle Parhizkaran | Credit: USA TODAY Sports Copyright: USA TODAY Sports WTA
Sep 5, 2019; Flushing, NY, USA; Serena Williams of the United States hits to Elina Svitolina of Ukraine (not pictured) in a semifinal match on day eleven of the 2019 US Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

The WTA Tour is filled with young players, all of which grew up watching Serena Williams. With Serena’s lack of dominance in the sport the last few years, these up and coming players are not afraid to play Serena and feel they can beat her in a Grand Slam. Serena continues to be stuck at 23 Majors, which puts her second all time in Major titles. Although Margaret Court holds the record of 24, most of her wins came when the women’s tour was smaller and amateurs were only allowed to compete. Even though it does not matter if Serena gets to 24 or not for her legacy, as she is widely considered the greatest of all time, it would make for a perfect ending to an incredible career.

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I still believe she has what it takes to win another Major title. To win another Major, she will need to play at the highest level possible in each of the seven matches needed to win a Grand Slam. Serena could afford a few bad sets or matches early in Majors in the past, but as her level has dipped, the margin of error has narrowed. I believe that her best chance to win number 24 is at Wimbledon, an event she’s won seven times, and was in the finals of in 2018 and 2019. If she does win number 24, it will be one of the greatest achievements ever in the sport.

The Current Star Of The WTA

Naomi Osaka is starting to distance herself from the rest of the top players in the world. Osaka has a current ranking of number 3 in the world. Although not number 1 in the world currently, I believe she is the best player on the WTA Tour right now. When Osaka is playing her best, which so far in her early career has not been too often, she is impossible to beat. At just 23 years old, she has already captured three Grand Slam titles, and had the number 1 ranking in the world in January of 2019.

My favorite part of her game is her attitude on the court. She may be down in a match, but continues to have a fighting spirit, believing deep down that she can come back and win. The US Open this year proved just that, as she lost the first set 6-1 to Azarenka in the final, only to fight back and win the next two sets to win the title. When she won the 2019 Australian Open, she fought back after down a set in both the third and fourth round. She might not be playing her best in a match at first, but she is able to turn things around very quickly and dominant the rest of the match.

Creator: Robert Deutsch | Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports Copyright: USA TODAY Sports WTA
Aug 31, 2020; Flushing Meadows, New York, USA; Naomi Osaka (JPN) hits the ball in the stands following her match with Misaki Doi (JPN) on day one of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

I believe Osaka will win another Major in 2021 and further distance herself from the rest. Osaka does not need to play her best to win matches in big tournaments, which makes her a serious threat to win any tournament. 2021 will show us if Osaka is really going to be a dominant force on the WTA Tour in the years ahead. A memorable 2021 could have in her the discussion with former top players Maria Sharapova, who won five Majors, and Venus Williams, who won seven. If she continues with the success she’s been having over the first few years of her career, I can see her becoming one of only a few players in women’s tennis history to win double digit Grand Slam titles.

Andreescu’s Return

Bianca Andreescu surprised the tennis world in 2019 when she played her first tournament of that year in New Zealand at the ASB Classic. Having just played ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournaments all of 2018, which is a tier lower than the WTA Tour events, not many knew her name. Her ranking at the beginning of 2019 was outside the top 150, sitting at 178 in the world.

In that first tournament of 2019, she beat world number 3 at the time, Caroline Wozniacki, and seven time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams. She ended up losing in the finals to Julia Goerges. Andreescu then went on to win the BNP Paribas Open, the Rogers Cup in her home country of Canada, and finished the year winning the US Open. In that 2019 US Open, Andreescu beat Serena Williams in straight sets in the final, winning the match 6-3, 7-5.

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The last match Andreescu played on the WTA Tour was all the way back in November of 2019. After such a crazy year, where she ended the year in the top 5 in the world, she did not play at all in 2020. Injuries caused her to retire from three matches in 2019, and it got worse at the end of that year, forcing her to miss the start of 2020.

Her coach said that she was preparing to play at Indian Wells in 2020 after recovering from a knee injury, but because of the pandemic, the event was not held. During the pandemic break, she suffered another injury, this time to her foot, causing her to stop training again. Andreescu and her coach have said that her injuries are now in the past, and that she is ready for the 2021 season. We saw the talent and skill Andresscu has in 2019, but the tennis community is still skeptical whether she can stay healthy throughout an entire year. Even after missing a whole year, Andreescu is still only 20 years old and has a long career ahead of her if she can stay healthy. 2021 will tell us how healthy Andreescu is and if the success she had in 2019 can continue into the 2021 season. 

Other Potential Future Stars

I mentioned a few players above who can be the face of the sport for many years to come. Sofia Kenin, Naomi Osaka, Iga Swiatek, and Bianca Andreescu all have what it takes to win another Grand Slam and be the world number 1. However, there are other young players who have not won a Grand Slam yet, that could make a big run in 2021 and join this current list of players.

Cori Gauff

A name that you probably have heard of that I believe could have a big 2021 is Cori Gauff. At just 16 years old, she is the youngest player in the top 50, sitting at 48 in the world. She has already made the round of 16 twice at a Major, and has wins against some of the best in the world, most notably Naomi Osaka, who she beat at the Australian Open this year.

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Gauff has unbelievable talent, and has been able to control her nerves while playing in a Grand Slam tournament at just 15 years old. I believe Gauff will take the next step in 2021 after gaining much needed experience this year by playing in all three Grand Slams. I do not expect her to win a Major in 2021, but she could make a couple quarterfinal appearances and end the year inside the top 25 in the WTA rankings.

Aryna Sabalenka

Another name I will mention her is current world number 10, Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka is from Minsk, Belarus, and is 22 years old. Sabalenka won three times on the WTA Tour this past year. When she is playing her best tennis, she can beat top players quite easily. Sabalenka won in straight sets in all three finals that she won, beating someone in the top 25 in all three matches.

The only success Sabalenka is missing is at the Grand Slam events, where she has only made it past the third round once in her career. I believe that the strong finish to 2020, where she won the last two events she played, should give her a lot of confidence heading into the Australian Open. Out of all the players who have yet to win a Major title, I give Sabalenka the best chance to win one in 2021.

Marketa Vondrousova

The last name I will mention here is a 21 year old from Sokolov, Czech Republic, who has a current ranking of 21 in the world. Marketa Vondrousova is a lefty who has what it takes to be a top player in the world. Although she has not had the 2020 season she would have liked, her ranking is still right around where it was last year.

Vondrousova made a strong run at the French Open in 2019, making it all the way to the final before losing to Ashleigh Barty. Her ranking has not moved much since then, but she has shown that she can beat the best in the world. She has beaten top 10 players Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep, while also making the semifinals in Rome right before the 2020 French Open. She only played 10 tournaments this year, losing six of them in the first round, so she unable to play many matches in 2020. At her age, getting lots of matches in and gaining experience on the WTA Tour is crucial for her future success. If the WTA Tour is back with a full season in 2021, I expect Vondrousova to show us that she is a real threat at the Grand Slams.

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Predictions For The 2021 Season

To wrap up the preview of the 2021 WTA Tour, I will make some predictions on who will win each of the four Grand Slams in 2021 along with the five players I believe will be in the top 5 in the world at the end of the year. I will also name a finalist in each of the four slams, and will include a dark horse that has a current ranking outside the top 30 that will make a deep run in the tournament.

Australian Open

I believe that Naomi Osaka will win the first Major of the year in Australia. Osaka won this tournament back in 2019, and is currently playing some of her best tennis yet. I am predicting that she will play Sofia Kenin in the final, and that Osaka will win in three sets. My dark horse for this tournament is Ons Jabeur. Jabeur made the quarterfinals in Australia in 2020, and just had her best year on the WTA Tour, currently ranked 31 in the world.  I believe that Jabeur will make it back to the quarters, and may even reach the semis.

French Open

I am going with Garbine Muguruza to win the French Open title. Muguruza had good results at the Grand Slams this year, making it to the final of a Major for the first time in three years. She won this tournament back in 2016, and I believe that clay is her best surface. I predict that Muguruza will beat Simona Halep in the final. My dark horse for the French Open is Fiona Ferro, who reached the round of 16 here this past year. At just 23 years old, and at a career high ranking of 42, I believe she will make a breakthrough at the French Open in 2021.

Wimbledon

I believe that we only get one new Major champion in 2021, but Wimbledon will not be the event they win. I predict that Petra Kvitova will win Wimbledon for the third time. Kvitova has always played well on the grass courts at the All England Club, and 2021 will be no different. Kvitova will beat Serena Williams in the final, as Serena will fall short once again in capturing number 24. My dark horse at Wimbledon is the 18 year old Canadian Leylah Fernandez. In her first year on tour, she made it to the second round of the US Open, and the third round of the French Open. I believe that she will make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and her ranking will rise from 88 to inside the top 50 by the end of 2021.

US Open

With so many upsets and different Major champions the last few years in the women’s game, it becomes very difficult to predict who the next first time Major champion will be. I predict that the US Open will have that next champion in 2021, and that player will beat defending champion Naomi Osaka in the final. I believe that the next new Major champion will be Aryna Sabalenka. She has had a ton of success at the smaller tournaments on the WTA Tour, but has yet to translate it to the Grand Slams. I believe this is the year she wins her first Grand Slam title. My dark horse in this tournament is Cori Gauff, who reached the third round here in 2019. Even though she is just 16 years old, she already has the talent and skill to compete for a Grand Slam title.

Top 5

There are many players that have a current ranking inside the top 15 or 20 that could end up in the top 5 by the end of next year. The three names that are currently in the top 5 and I predict will stay there by the end of 2021 are Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, and Sofia Kenin. The other two I believe will end the year in the top 5 are Aryna Sabalenka and Petra Kvitova. Bianca Andreescu and Victoria Azarenka are two players I believe will be just on the outside of the top 5 at the end of the year, and may be inside the top 5 for some portion of the 2021 season.

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