2019 In Review: The New Kids Are All Right

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

While Serena Williams reached two major finals still in search of an elusive record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, the 2019 women’s tennis season will be remembered as a year in which Ashleigh Barty rose to No. 1 and Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu made last impressions on the game. Plus, who can ever forget the impact that 15-year-old American teen sensation Coco Gauff made, too?

Like the classic Frank Sinatra song lyric, “it was a very good year” for young women’s players to rise up on the world stage. The year was nicely punctuated by the impact that the 22-year-old Osaka of Japan made when she won her second consecutive major after capturing the Australian Open in Melbourne last January and rose to No. 1 in the rankings. There was the coming of age of the Australian Barty, who at 23 won the French Open and added to it the year-ending WTA Finals title, and surpassed Osaka in the rankings.

Then, there was Andreescu, 19, who surprised everyone by winning the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells back in March and, later, returned after being sidelined with a torn right rotator cuff injury to triumph at the US Open – becoming the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title. She began the year ranked 173rd and finished at No. 5. As for Gauff, her moment to shine and gain immediate recognition came on tennis’ biggest stage at the Wimbledon Championships. After reaching the main draw as a qualifier, the Florida teen merely upset five-time champion Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4, in the first round and kept winning by showing great confidence and poise until she lost in the fourth round to eventual champion Simona Halep. Later, as a lucky loser, Gauff lifted her first WTA singles trophy by winning at Linz, Austria in October, and finished ranked 68th. Plus, Halep, 28, won her first Wimbledon crown with a 6-2, 6-2 rout of Serena Williams, who played a limited schedule of just eight tournaments while winning none. Halep’s second major triumph – which surprisingly was her only title of 2019 – came at a time when she enjoyed a good run of form during the summer.

Besides the emergence of Gauff, another American, 20-year-old Sofia Kenin, garnered much attention. Kenin won three titles – at Hobart, Mallorca and Guangzhou – thanks to a solid baseline attack and a competitive streak that was second to none. She rose from No. 52 to No. 14.

Looking back, some of the best big-match tennis throughout the season was played by Barty, who enjoyed a break-out campaign after starting the year ranked 15th. Barty won her first WTA premier mandatory event in Miami, beating Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 7-6 (1), 6-3, on a hard court. She followed it with her first major triumph in winning on clay at Roland Garros by defeating upstart Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-3, and was victorious on grass at Birmingham, with a 6-3, 7-5 victory of Julia Goerges of Germany in the final. Finally, Barty lifted the biggest trophy of the year and earned the richest payday in tennis history – $4.2 million – at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China on an indoor hard court, where she beat defending champion Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, 6-4, 6-3.

Barty was a steady-as-she-goes player with a variety of potent weapons in her arsenal, including a deceptive slice backhand and deft drop shot. On court, she never looked too excited or ever got too down on herself. Barty credited her team, which included her coach, Craig Tyzzer, and mental guru, Ben Crowe – always speaking in the third-person plural “we” and not the first-person singular “I”.

“We’ve played some exceptional tennis,” said Barty at season’s end.

Three players reached the Top 10 for the first time: Barty entered at No. 1, Andreescu at No. 4 and Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus at No. 9. Also, Sabalenka, who teamed with Elise Mertens of Belgium, rose to No. 2 in the doubles rankings and were a formidable pair – winning the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami in the spring as well as the US Open in September.

Speaking of doubles, there was an equitable distribution of majors champions in 2019: Samantha Stosur of Australia and Zhang Shuai from China teamed to win the Australian Open, Kristina Mladenovic from France and Timea Babos of Hungary won the French Open, and the Czech Republic’s Barbora Strycova and Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan prevailed at Wimbledon.

Of the notable players who retired, Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic once was ranked as high as No. 5 in singles and No. 1 in doubles. She won seven WTA singles titles and 15 doubles titles, five of them Grand Slams paired with Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the U.S. Safarova, 32, played her last competitive match paired alongside Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the French Open doubles. Ironically, Cibulkova, 30,  also called it a career at the end of 2019. She reached a career-high No. 4 in singles and No. 59 in doubles. Cibulkova won eight WTA singles titles – none bigger than her victory at the 2016 WTA Finals. She also reached six Grand Slam singles quarterfinals, including the final at the 2014 Australian Open, which she lost to Li Na. Both Safarova and Cibulkova retired due to injury problems.

Finally, one player who got a jump start on announcing her upcoming retirement is the popular and kind Carla Suárez-Navarro of Spain. On Tuesday, she said via the WTA Tour’s website that next season would be her final one. “My desire is clear: to be proud of this last effort when I reach the end of the road.”

Suárez-Navarro, 31, a former World No. 6, has reached the quarterfinals of seven Grand Slams, been a Top 50 player in 12 consecutive seasons, and she achieved two year-ending Top 10 finishes. One of the few women professionals who hits a one-fisted backhand, she begins her final season ranked 55th with a goal of cracking the Top 10, again.

While the end of the journey is coming into focus for Suárez-Navarro, for others like Barty it’s just beginning.

“It’s about creating your own path, creating your own journey, and embracing it,” Barty said after winning the French Open in June. “There’s no formula how to, you know, become a professional tennis player. It’s your own, it’s unique, your own journey, your own path, your own experiences.

“I think the best thing to do is learn from your mistakes, learn from every single experience that you have, whether it’s good or bad. That’s the only way to go about it, only way to grow as a person and as a player.”

With Barty at the top of her game, the future of women’s tennis is bright.