2021 Women's Tennis Preview

2021 Women's Tennis Preview

The women's game is significantly more wide open than the men's, as the 15 Grand Slams over the past four years have featured 12 different champions. That said, there's still a clear group of favorites at every major tournament. Read on for a preview of the top 25 ranked players on the WTA Tour heading into the 2021 season, broken down into tiers from the top contenders to the players who are just happy to make the second week. Every player's name is preceded by their ranking from the Jan. 18 update, but keep in mind that these rankings are reflective of the revised system that takes the best result from 2019 or 2020 rather than the usual 52-week rolling period.

Tier 1A - The top of the heap

(3) Naomi Osaka - Osaka's the only player to win three Grand Slams over the past four years, capturing the US Open in 2018 and 2020, as well as the Australian Open in 2019. All three of those titles came on hard courts, and Osaka has supplanted Serena Williams as the player to beat on that surface, though a healthy Bianca Andreescu could have something to say about that. Osaka's pedestrian footwork has been exposed at times on grass and clay, which is why she's yet to get past the third round at Wimbledon or the French Open, but the 23-year-old should get more comfortable on those surfaces with more experience and can control the court against anybody with her powerful serve and groundstrokes.

(2) Simona Halep - Halep is the only woman besides Osaka with multiple Grand Slam titles since the start of the 2017 season, and the Romanian is the best defender in the game today. While Osaka overpowers opponents, Halep outlasts them, grinding the opposition into submission with her retrieving ability while having enough offensive skill to make people pay for leaving the ball short. That style lends itself to the most success on clay, so it's no surprise that Halep's best results have come at Roland Garros, where she won her first major title in 2019 after two previous losses in the championship match. Halep's success isn't just limited to the slow stuff, though, as she won Wimbledon when it was last played in 2019 and has made the semifinals or better twice in Australia and once at the US Open.

(1) Ashleigh Barty - Barty has the most variety of the top players, which allows her to excel on all surfaces. She can hang with anybody from the baseline but also loves to mix in the slice and is among the best volleyers in the women's game. The Australian holds the top ranking in large part because she's protecting a lot of points from 2019, as Barty skipped the remainder of the 2020 season following the COVID hiatus. Look for the 2019 French Open champion and 2020 Australian Open semifinalist to pick up where she left off when Barty makes her return to the tour in 2021.

(4) Sofia Kenin - Kenin broke out in 2020, winning the Australian Open to start the year and backing that result up with her best career results at the US Open (Round of 16) and French Open (runner-up). The 22-year-old American has an all-court playing style that revolves around her exquisite timing, as she can effortlessly absorb power and turn defense into offense. Some concerns arose around mental fatigue last season due to how emotionally invested Kenin gets into every match, but her on-court results remained stellar, and it's better for an athlete to care too much than not enough (cough, Nick Kyrgios, cough).  

Tier 1B - More to prove

(8) Bianca Andreescu - After struggling with injuries early in her career, Andreescu took the WTA by storm in 2019, reeling off wins at Indian Wells, the Rogers Cup and the US Open, with victories over Serena Williams in the finals of the last two. Unfortunately, the injury bug bit the Canadian once again in the 2019 WTA Finals, as she suffered a knee injury that kept her out of action in 2020. Still just 20 years old, Andreescu could turn into the player to beat on the WTA Tour, especially on her favorite hard court surface, if she regains her pre-injury form. Whether she can find that level in 2021, let alone keep it up, remains to be seen. Step 1 is getting back on the court, and she intends to do so at the upcoming Australian Open.

(17) Iga Swiatek - Don't let Swiatek's low ranking fool you, as she collected the fifth-most points in the abbreviated 2020 season and should climb into the top 10 before long. The 19-year-old Pole is a wonderful ball-striker and steamrolled the competition at the 2020 French Open without dropping a set. We have seen young players on the women's side struggle after winning their maiden slams over the years (this hasn't been a problem with the men because the same few guys have been hogging all the titles), but if Iga can avoid the post-title lull that plagued the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens, she should establish herself as a contender at every major tournament moving forward.

(11) Serena Williams - Serena is now in the longest Grand Slam title drought of her career, having lost all four of her major final appearances since winning the 2017 Australian Open to pull one ahead of Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles in the Open Era and one behind Margaret Court for the most overall with her 23rd. She's still as driven as ever, but Williams is 39 years old now and will have to compete with a field full of talented, young players who grew up dreaming of beating her on the big stage, as well as a few veteran rivals left over from her prime. Serena made the semifinals of the US Open in 2020 and remains a contender in every tournament she enters despite her advanced age, especially on the faster hard court and grass surfaces.

Tier 2 - Established contenders

These players have all been fixtures near the top of women's tennis, be it due to Grand Slam success or high rankings. They have a legitimate shot at the title in every major tournament but will be fighting uphill battles against Tier 1 opponents.

(9) Petra Kvitova - Kvitova is a fixture in the second week of Grand Slams, but she's more of an obstacle to be overcome by champions rather than a top contender herself, as the two-time Wimbledon winner last emerged victorious at a major in 2014. That said, Kvitova's recent results have moved her to the top of this tier, as she made the Australian Open final in 2019 and the French Open semifinals in 2020 following a four-year period in which her best results were a pair of US Open quarterfinals. The Czech lefty's capable of a deep run anywhere, but Wimbledon offers her best shot at another title.

(13) Victoria Azarenka - Azarenka was on the verge of retiring because she couldn't win a match, then suddenly something clicked and she started partying on the court like it was 2013. The two-time Australian Open champion won the title at the Western & Southern Open and carried that momentum into the US Open, where she defeated Serena Williams in the semifinals to reach her first Grand Slam final in seven years before losing to Osaka. There's some risk that Azarenka's 2020 resurgence was just a dead-cat bounce given her years of mediocre play prior, but the 31-year-old will be in the title mix at the hard-court slams if she can carry her recent level into 2021.

(15) Garbine Muguruza - Muguruza hasn't found as much consistency as she would have hoped for from tournament to tournament, but the Spaniard is capable of uncorking a deep run on any surface. She has made the semifinals or better of at least one slam in five of the past six years and has 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon titles under her belt. Her best slam has been Roland Garros, where Muguruza has made the quarterfinals or better four times, while her least successful has been the US Open, where the 27-year-old has never reached the quarterfinals in eight tries, getting past the second round only once.

(5) Elina Svitolina - Svitolina broke out at the majors in 2019 with a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open followed by semifinal runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, and the 26-year-old Ukrainian added her third career French Open quarterfinal appearance in 2020. Her defensive baseline game has been proven to work on all surfaces, but Svitolina has now been ranked in the top six since 2017 and has relatively little Grand Slam success to show for that time outside of her second half of 2019. Still, you can expect to see her name in the second week, as Svitolina usually finds a way to beat the players she should beat in the early rounds.

(6) Karolina Pliskova - Pliskova reached No. 1 in the world in 2017, but she has never captured a Grand Slam title. The closest she came was the final of the US Open in 2016, and Pliskova has just two other semifinal runs under her belt. The big-serving Czech should still have some quality years left in her at age 28, but Pliskova was nowhere near contention at the Grand Slam level in 2020, finishing 4-3 after winning at least 13 Grand Slam matches in each of the previous three years. She should bounce back and at least make the second week of a couple majors in 2021.

(25) Angelique Kerber - Kerber has struggled over the past two years, but her compete level and will to win are still as strong as anybody's on the WTA Tour, and she has played some of her best tennis in the biggest moments. The German was ranked No. 1 in 2016, when she won the Australian Open and US Open, and she was No. 2 as recently as 2018, when Kerber added a Wimbledon title to her ledger. She hasn't made a Grand Slam quarterfinal since then but has appeared in the Round of 16 three times in the last two years, so a return to better overall form could see Kerber back in contention at the majors, especially on hard and grass courts.

Tier 3 - Still searching for a breakthrough

(16) Madison Keys - Keys has the power to blow most opponents off the court, but she always seems to falter for one reason or another in the latter rounds of Grand Slams. The 25-year-old American has often been just one or two matches from a breakthrough, making the US Open final in 2017 and adding three major semifinal appearances since 2015. Keys made the Round of 16 or better in 14 of her 19 Grand Slams played between 2015 and 2019, but she went just 4-3 at the Grand Slam level in 2020. Like the players in Tier 2, Keys is always capable of making a run to the second week, but it will be an uphill battle from there.

(12) Belinda Bencic - It feels like Bencic has been around forever, even though she's only 23 years old. Her best results have come at the US Open, where Bencic burst onto the scene with a quarterfinal run way back in 2014, then added a semifinal appearance in 2019. She battled some injuries in between, but Bencic has the talent to win a major, possessing some of the best timing and technique on the WTA tour. Bencic will need things to fall in place to do so, but her career is trending in the right direction again.

(14) Johanna Konta - Konta followed up her best Grand Slam season in 2019 with her worst in 2020. The Brit made the quarterfinals or better at each of the last three majors in 2019, including her third career Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open, then proceeded to post an ugly 1-3 record in 2020 Grand Slam play. Konta has had an up-and-down career, as her playing quality seems to fluctuate with her confidence level, but 2019 showed she can be a consistent factor late in majors when she catches a groove.

(20) Elise Mertens - Mertens hasn't lost before the third round of a Grand Slam in the past three years, and she has made the quarterfinals of the last two US Opens after reaching the Australian Open semifinals in 2018. She also has plenty of deep doubles runs under her belt at the Grand Slams, which should help Mertens with the mental aspect of closing out big matches. Consider the 25-year-old Belgian a dark horse candidate at the hard-court slams.

(7) Aryna Sabalenka - Sabalenka has established herself as a contender at all the tournaments below the Grand Slam level, having already picked up a title in 2021 for her ninth since the start of the 2018 season. It has been a different story in the majors, where Sabalenka is just 11-12 with one fourth-round appearance. The 22-year-old will almost certainly improve at the slams moving forward, but unseeded opponents view her as a prime early upset opportunity and it will take a few strong results to change that.

(10) Kiki Bertens - Bertens is another player who has done most of her damage outside of Grand Slams, but unlike Sabalenka, the 29-year-old Bertens doesn't have much time left to figure things out on the biggest stage. She made a run to the French Open semifinals in 2016 and added a Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance in 2018, but Bertens has just three other fourth-round appearances in 32 career Grand Slam main draws. Perhaps the tides are slowly starting to turn, though, as two of those fourth-round runs came in 2020.

Tier 4 - Low floors or low ceilings

These players either consistently run into dead ends in the second week of majors, if they get there at all, or have demonstrated intriguing potential but need to show more consistency before they're ready to be considered on par with the players above.

(24) Jennifer Brady - Brady broke out after the hiatus in 2020, winning her first career WTA title and making a run to the US Open semifinals. The 25-year-old American's big serve and forehand could make her a contender in the hard and grass court slams moving forward, but Brady still has to show that last year's strong hard-court season was more than a flash in the pan.

(19) Elena Rybakina - Rybakina's only 21 and made five tour finals last season, so she could be on the verge of a breakout season at the majors. She enters 2021 with a 4-5 career Grand Slam record.

(18) Petra Martic - Martic beats the players she should and has three fourth-round appearances and a quarterfinal run in her last six Grand Slams, but the 29-year-old Croatian hasn't shown the ability to trouble top players in the later rounds.

(22) Maria Sakkari - Sakkari's hitting her prime at age 25. She's still looking for her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal, but it wouldn't be surprising to see such a breakthrough in 2021. After going a career-best 7-4 in Grand Slams in 2019, Sakkari improved to 8-3 in 2020, making her first major Round of 16 at the Australian Open and matching that feat at the US Open.

(21) Marketa Vondrousova - Vondrousova made a Cinderella run to the French Open final in 2019, but she has been past the second round at just one of 12 other Grand Slams. The 21-year-old Czech's first-round loss to Swiatek at Roland Garros 2020 was excusable considering Swiatek went on to win the title, but there are still question marks surrounding Vondrousova's game outside of clay. Vondrousova could push toward the top 10 this season, but she could also drop out of the top 50, as 2021 should help provide clarification on whether her 2019 French Open was a one-off fluke or a harbinger of further success.

(23) Anett Kontaveit - Kontaveit's a crafty player who's hitting her stride at age 25 after battling some injuries and an illness in recent years. She made her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2020 Australian Open and has shown aptitude on all surfaces, reaching three more fourth rounds and three third rounds in the past three years. It doesn't look like Kontaveit has the tools to trouble top players when it counts, though her speed and variety could make the Estonian a tough test in the right matchup.

Others to watch

(31) Amanda Anisimova - Anisimova has the talent to compete for slams, and that's exactly what she was doing as a 17-year-old in 2019, with a fourth-round appearance in Australia and a semifinal run at Roland Garros, where she had eventual champion Barty on the ropes. Her ascent to stardom was halted by the death of her father/coach, Konstantin, in August of 2019. The grieving Anisimova has been unable to replicate her level from the first half of 2019 since then, but hopefully the 21-year-old American will be able to rediscover her top form. When she's on her game, Anisimova controls play from the baseline off both wings, and her two-handed backhand is as good as any on the WTA Tour.

(48) Coco Gauff - Gauff has become a household name in the tennis world and beyond, as she broke through to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2019 at age 15. She added a fourth-round appearance at the 2020 Australian Open, and it won't be long until Coco's making the quarterfinals or better at majors. Her baseline game already features a rare mix of power and scrambling ability, and Gauff still has plenty of low-hanging fruit to pluck in improving her game, starting with a second serve that has fluctuated between inconsistent and nonexistent up to this point. Her accomplishments at such a young age despite such a glaring hole in her game show just how much potential Gauff has. The American doesn't turn 17 until March.

(47) Nadia Podoroska - Podoroska came out of nowhere to make the semifinals of the 2020 French Open, winning three matches in qualifying and five more in the main draw before falling to Swiatek. That breakout performance catapulted the 23-year-old Argentine into the top 50 and won her WTA Newcomer of the Year honors. Her only other Grand Slam appearance was a 2016 first-round US Open loss, so it remains to be seen if Roland Garros 2020 represented a stepping stone to bigger and better things or a once in a lifetime performance.

(40) Sloane Stephens - For a while, it looked like Stephens was going to be the next big thing, as she upset Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal and finally broke through with a championship at the 2017 US Open. Stephens backed that result up with a run to the 2018 French Open final, but her form has dropped drastically since then. Stephens hasn't made a WTA final in two years while losing in the third round or earlier in each of her last five Grand Slam appearances. The 27-year-old American still has time to rediscover her elite form of years past, but she has been trending in the wrong direction.

(45) Jelena Ostapenko - If Ostapenko can bring her second serve up to just average, she should be able to compete for Grand Slam titles. She won her first WTA title just after her 20th birthday at the 2017 French Open and added a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon that year, then made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 2018. Outside of those three deep runs, Ostapenko has failed to advance past the third round in 17 other Grand Slam appearances, and her inability to do so can be directly traced to one of the worst second serves in tennis – she led the WTA Tour with 436 double faults in 51 matches, averaging nearly nine per match. With tremendous power off the ground on both sides, Ostapenko is capable of blowing opponents off the court on all surfaces, but it's hard to do so when every service game is a massive struggle.

(1,032) Kim Clijsters - Don't let Clijsters' ranking outside the top 1,000 and soccer mom appearance fool you. The former world No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion unretired for the second time late last season after a seven-year hiatus from the game. She probably won't contend for another major title, but with Serena still going strong and Azarenka bouncing back after looking noncompetitive, perhaps the 37-year-old Clijsters has a surprising run of her own left up her sleeve. All four of her Grand Slam titles came on hard courts, so that's where the Belgian will be most dangerous.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sasha Yodashkin
Sasha has been contributing NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and Tennis content to RotoWire since 2015, with an emphasis on DFS. He is a huge New York sports fan who has been playing fantasy sports since middle school.
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