Records, controversy and the unexpected heroes: WTA 2017 review

By Iain Proudfoot

The WTA Tour Finals held during October signals the end of the 2017 WTA Tour for players ranked in the top 8 ,with qualification known as the ‘Porsche Race to Singapore’.

Since Dominika Cibulkova lifted the trophy last year, with victory over Angelique Kerber, it is clear 2017 has been one of the most eventful in women’s tennis – featuring four different Grand Slam winners and five players topping the rankings.

As always the new season began on hard courts in Australia and New Zealand with Kerber starting the year in top spot.

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One of the players looking to catch Kerber was defeated US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova and began her season lifting the title in Brisbane by conquering Alize Cornet.

Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, Serena Williams’ Australian Open preparations were dealt a blow by a surprise defeat to Madison Brengle in the second round with Lauren Davis the eventual champion in Auckland.

Another player enjoying a successful start to the year was Johanna Konta who, having just missed out on a place in the 2016 edition of the WTA Tour finals, lay down a marker by overcoming Agnieszka Radwanska in the final of the Sydney International.

Despite not winning a tournament in 2017 Kerber and Serena Williams were installed as favourites for the Australian Open.

Serena, in pursuit of a 23rd Grand Slam, overcame a tricky first round match against the talented Swiss player Belinda Bencic and reached the final in good form. For Kerber her defence would last until the fourth round where she was defeated by eventual semi-finalist CoCo Vandeweghe.

Former champion Venus Williams would end Vandeweghe’s run and set up the first all-Williams final in Melbourne since 2003. Both sisters were looking to make history with Venus at 36 the oldest player to reach a Grand Slam final since 1994 and Serena attempting to pass Steffi Graf‘s open era record of 22 major titles.

In the end it was Serena celebrating after a 6-4 6-4 victory which cemented her status as the greatest female player of all time.

 

What made the achievement even more remarkable was the news Serena had won the tournament, and returned to world number one, while eight weeks pregnant.

Having taken a break from competing Serena announced the birth of a baby girl in September much to the delight of the tennis community.

With Serena absent from the tour opportunities arose for new names to take the headlines and Kiki Mladenovic of France won her first singles title at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy.

Also continuing a good start to 2017 was Karolina Pliskova who overcame Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the Qatar Open.

Even with a final defeat the Dane was showing glimpses of the form which took her to number one in the world and would reach the same stage in Dubai where she was defeated by another rising star Elina Svitolina.

As the Tour progressed to the ‘Sunshine Double’ of Indian Wells and Miami, Angelique Kerber had returned to the top of the rankings due to Serena’s withdrawal.

The two-time Grand Slam champion battled through to the fourth round where she was defeated by Elena Vesnina 6-3 6-3. Confident after victory over Kerber, Vesnina defeated Venus Williams, Kristina Mladenovic and fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova to lift her first Premier Mandatory Title.

Vesnina’s hopes of replicating the achievement of Victoria Azarenka and winning in both Indian Wells and Miami were dashed in the second round after defeat from world number 594 Ajla Tomljanovic. Wozniacki would continue her fine record of reaching finals in 2017 although was overpowered by Konta, who claimed the most significant title by any British woman in 40 years.

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Having left North America, the focus of the Tour was on the clay court season and attention was understandably given to Maria Sharapova’s return to the sport following a doping ban. The five-time Grand Slam champion was given a wildcard to the Stuttgart Open with the world’s press descending on the event like never before.

Sharapova progressed through the first two rounds against Vinci and Makarova while displaying some of the skills which took her to the top of the game. Media interest was sky-high for the semi-final with Mladenovic – who had been a vocal opponent of the decision to give a wildcard to Sharapova.

Fortunately the match lived up the hype and Mladenovic prevailed in an entertaining three set contest 3-6 7-5 6-4 to reach her third final of the year.

Home favourite Laura Siegemund who always seems to find her best in Stuttgart was her opponent and it was the German who held the trophy aloft in her home country.

Sharapova would continue her comeback in Madrid, after she was granted a wildcard, and was joined by a host of top players looking to gain valuable ranking points and playing time on clay. One of the main critics of her return was Eugenie Bouchard who secured her biggest win of 2017 by knocking the Russian out in the second round. An impressive victory against Kerber followed before being defeated by Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarter finals. Kiki Mladenovic was Kuznetsova’s opponent and she continued a good run of form to reach the final for the first time.

In the other side of the draw defending champion Simona Halep demonstrated her natural clay court ability to reach the final where she retained her title in three sets.

Halep’s form on clay in recent years is highly impressive and she had won 22 of the last 25 matches on the surface going into the Italian Open. Another clay specialist, Elina Svitolina, would defeat Halep in the final 4-6 7-5 6-1.

As the second Grand Slam approached the French Tennis Federation decided not to offer former champion Sharapova a wildcard for the tournament.

One player who would be making an appearance was two time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova for her first match following a horrific knife attack at her home in the Czech Republic.

The sight of the popular Czech returning to court was a heart-warming sight and she displayed her natural talent to defeat Julia Boserup – setting up a match with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

The American would end the run in a closely fought contest, which featured two tie-break sets, but in some ways the result was immaterial as many thought Kvitova would not be able to return to competitive action following her injury.

As expected Halep progressed to the quarters and would set up a repeat of the Italian Open final against Svitolina. In what was an incredible match, Halep recovered from a set and 5-1 down to reach the semis where she would reach her second final after defeating Karolina Pliskova.

If Halep’s run to the final was predictable the same cannot be said about the other finalist Jelena Ostapenko – ranked 47 in the world.

Her all-out attacking style proved too much for top-30 players Samantha Stoser, Wozniacki and Timea Bacsinszky. Ostapenko sustained her incredible level during the final where she hit 54 winners in a 4-6 6-4 6-3 contest to become the first unseeded women to win the French Open since 1933. The Latvian’s first professional title saw a surge up the rankings – to 12 in the world – and again highlighted the ability of sport to surprise.

 

With the clay court season unleashing a new star in Ostapenko, attention turned to the grass court. It was in Mallorca where former world number one Victoria Azarenka returned to the tour following the birth of her son Leo – reaching the last 16 with Anastasija Sevastova becoming the second women to lift the title.

While Sevastova was winning, Kvitova continued her comeback by becoming champion of the Birmingham classic at the expense of Ashleigh Barty.

Similarly to Kvitova, her compatriot Pliskova is also well-suited to grass and the world number three confirmed her status as a Wimbledon contender by winning the Aegon International at Eastbourne.

Having been in such good form it was a surprise to see Pliskova knocked out in the second round of Wimbledon by world number 87 Magdalena Rybarikova. The Pliskova defeat, coupled with a loss from Kvitova, ensured that British star Konta was installed by the bookmakers as favourite for the tournament.

Unburdened by the expectations of a home crowd Konta became the first British woman to reach the semi-final since 1978, where she was defeated by five-time Wimbledon Champion Venus Williams.

Standing in the way of a sixth was former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza. In what was an intriguing final the first set would prove crucial and it was the Spaniard who celebrated with a 7-5 6-0 victory, becoming the first woman to beat both Williams sisters in a Grand Slam final.

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Buoyed by becoming Wimbledon champion, Muguruza headed across the Atlantic and sustained her high level on the American hard courts by reaching the semi-finals of the Stanford Classic. A run of ten consecutive match wins was ended by Madison Keys who defeated Vandewegh to lift the title on her return from a wrist injury.

Across the border at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Elina Svitolina made history by becoming the first woman to win three Premier Five events in the same year and she had a chance to overtake recently crowned World number one Pliskova at the upcoming Cincinnati Open.

Julia Goerges would end Svitolina’s run at the third round stage and, with Simona Halep defeated by Muguruza in the final, Pliskova’s place at the top was confirmed going into the U.S Open.

As had been the case for the previous two majors talk centred on the inclusion of Sharapova after the USTA awarded the former champion a wildcard to compete.

 

Having missed the entire grass court season and events in Toronto and Cincinnati due to an injury picked up in Rome, Sharapova went into her highly-anticipated first round match with Simona Halep without a lot of match practice.

In spite of the lack of competitive action the Russian hit 60 winners in front of a sell-out 24,000 crowd to defeat second seed Halep 6-4 4-6 6-3.

Sharapova continued to draw large crowds but exited at the fourth round stage in three tight sets to Sevastova. The Mallorca Open champion would have another tight match during the quarter-finals but came out on the wrong side against Sloane Stephens who continued to show good form on return from injury. Supporters of US tennis were in dreamland as Stephens was joined in the semi-finals by compatriots Vandeweghe, Madison Keys and Venus Williams. The winners of the all-American semi-finals were Keys and Stephens – a remarkable feat considering the injury-hit years for both players.

During a final, which lasted 61 minutes, Stephens took control and defeated the 15th seed 6-3, 6-0 to lift her first Grand Slam title at the age of 24.

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Since 2009 part of the tour which follows the U.S Open has been held in Asia, with a number of prestigious tournaments leading up to the World Tour finals. It was Muguruza who was now the woman to beat having gathered enough ranking points to surpass Pliskova as World Number one.

In the first Premier event of the ‘Asian Swing’, Caroline Wozniacki lifted the title in Tokyo having been defeated in six of the seven finals she had reached in 2017. Ostapenko was also showing good form towards the end of the year and secured her second title with victory over Beatriz Haddad Naia in the Korea Open.

Those titles won by Wozniacki and Ostapenko helped secure qualification for the World Tour Finals to join Muguruza, Halep, Pliskova, Svitolina and Venus Williams. The last remaining slot is between Caroline Garcia and Johanna Konta, with the French women putting herself in pole position with tournament victories in Wuhan and Beijing.

For Konta to qualify she must reach the final of the Moscow Open, which takes place in the week preceding the end of season showpiece.

Another story to come out of Beijing was that, by reaching the final, Halep became the fifth player of the year to top the rankings – becoming the first Romanian to do so.

Overall 2017 has been an extraordinary year on the WTA Tour with unexpected Grand Slam Champions, five players to top the world rankings and comebacks for some of the biggest names. It is fair to say that whatever happens at the World Tour Finals the year has been ace.

Roll on 2018…

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