With the WTA tour back underway Iain Proudfoot tells SportSpiel who we should be keeping an eye on in 2018.
The WTA Tour of 2018 began in early January with victories for Simona Halep at the Shenzhen Open, Elina Svitolina in Brisbane and Julia Görges lifting the ASB Classic title held in Auckland.
Judging by the opening week it promises to be another memorable year on the circuit with renewed rivalries, the return of 23-time Grand Slam Champion Serena Williams and promising young players looking to make their way in the game.
While it is only natural that attention will be drawn to world number one Halep, and other highly ranked players, the start of a new year is a good opportunity to look beyond the top 20 who possess the talent to move up the rankings and write their own headlines in the 48th edition of the tour.
Former junior world number one Belinda Bencic has experienced a difficult time with injury culminating in a May wrist operation, which kept her out of action for five months.
Until the injury setback her career was on an upward trajectory after lifting the Eastbourne title in 2015 and defeating Serena Williams in the final of the Rogers Cup.
Having returned to the court, Bencic now appears to have found the form that saw her become the youngest member of the top 10 since Caroline Wozniacki.Embed from Getty Images
Instead of accepting wildcards to WTA tournaments Bencic entered smaller ITF level events and the decision appears justified with titles in St Petersburg, Hua Hin, Taipei and Dubai. The ranking points awarded saw a jump in her ranking from 318, in September, to number 77 and ensured direct entry into the first Grand Slam of the year at the Australian Open.
Bencic’s preparation for Melbourne involved teaming up with Rodger Federer to represent Switzerland at the Hopman Cup held in Perth.
Currently on a 15-match winning streak going into the competition Bencic extended the run with victories over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova , CoCo Vandeweghe and Naomi Osaka. Despite defeat by Germany’s Angelique Kerber in the final, Bencic and Federer were victorious in the doubles to lift the cup for Switzerland.
Having gained confidence from a successful return from injury, and lifting the Hopman Cup, 20-year-old Bencic will look to the new season with plenty of optimism and may even return to the world’s top 10.
Ana KonjuhEmbed from Getty Images
Ana Konjuh, currently ranked number 54 in the world, is a former Australian Open and US Open junior champion. The talented Croatian, who debuted on the tour in 2014, coped well with the step up and a year later won her first professional title at the Nottingham Open defeating Monica Niculescu.
At the Grand Slams it is no surprise that Konjuh’s best run has come at events where she was successful as a junior and it was in New York, during 2016, where she reached her first quarter-final.
The route to this stage was very impressive and included defeats of Kiki Bertens and Agnieszka Radwanska. Defeat to eventual finalist Karolina Pliskova ended the run and denied Konjuh a place in the semi-finals.
Konjuh’s game continued to develop in 2017 and her best result was a three-set defeat of Dominika Cibulkova at Wimbledon to set up a meeting with Venus Williams in the fourth round.
The American, who made her Wimbledon debut before Konjuh was born, managed to channel all her experience to defeat the 27th seed 6-3, 6-2.
The rest of the season was curtailed as a troublesome elbow injury required surgery, with Konjah returning to action at this year’s Brisbane International where she was defeated by Svitolina.
Daria KasatkinaEmbed from Getty Images
Daria Kasatkina won her first professional title at the Charleston Open in April 2017 where she defeated Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-3. The defeat of the eventual French Open winner was unique as it was the first all-teenage final since 2009 and it may signal the start of a great rivalry between two talented players born in 1997.
Having shown her clay court ability with victory in Charleston, Kasatkina went into the French Open with great optimism and defeated Yanina Wickmayer and Marketa Vondrousova to reach the third round.
At this stage she would face an inspired Halep, who looked like the champion in waiting, and was defeated 6-0,7-5.
In the end it was Ostapenko who lifted the title at Roland Garros and she would later be drawn against Kasatkina in the third round of the US Open. The Russian managed to prevail 6-3, 6-4 to reach the fourth round of a slam for the first time.
Defeat to Kaia Kanepi would stop any further progress and the Estonian also got the better of Kasatkina again when the two met at this year’s Brisbane International.
As with any young player Kasatkina will learn from the defeat and she possesses all the attributes to make a name for herself in 2018.
Have you listened to the SportSpiel podcast yet? Find all our episodes here.