The first quarter of the season has come and gone. The game’s top players did not disappoint. Ashleigh Barty won two events and solidified her World No.1 ranking, while Naomi Osaka added another title to her growing Grand Slam resume.
But the first three months of the season also showcased some of the tour’s rising stars that we’re bound to see more of in the very near future. Clara Tauson, Sara Sorribes Tormo, and Leylah Fernandez were among the winners in the 14 events to kick off the 2021 season.
What do we make of all this? Web Editors Jason Juzwiak and Alex Macpherson, and senior writer Courtney Nguyen lend their perspective:
Who was the biggest surprise?
Juzwiak: Sara Sorribes Tormo’s momentum from an eye-opening run to the quarterfinals at the first event of the year in Abu Dhabi dissipated when she lost early in all three events she played in Australia. The Spaniard’s immediate reaction to that was, in fact, to play better than she ever had before on hardcourts.
The 24-year-old charged into her first WTA final by beating best pal Marie Bouzkova in the Guadalajara semifinals, then capped off the week by beating Eugenie Bouchard for a breakthrough title. She backed it up with a run to the Monterrey semifinals, then beat three Top 30 players to make the Miami Open quarterfinals before falling to Bianca Andreescu. With an 11-2 record on hardcourts over the past month and into the Top 50 for the first time in her career, it will be interesting to see how much higher Sorribes Tormo can go as the tour moves onto clay.
Macpherson: Viktorija Golubic. The stylish 28-year-old Swiss player enjoyed a peak year in 2016, winning her maiden title at home in Gstaad and backing it up with a run to the Linz final. But since hitting a career high of World No.51 the following April, Golubic had not returned to those heights. She reached just two WTA Tour semifinals between 2017-20, did not win a WTA main-draw match last year and began 2021 well outside the Top 100 at World No.138. A loss to Kamilla Rakhimova in Australian Open qualifying didn't spark confidence - but since then, Golubic has been soaring.
With her rare one-handed backhand in full flow, she took down home hopes Caroline Garcia and Fiona Ferro to reach the Lyon final as a qualifier. Two weeks later, she repeated the feat in Monterrey to extend her 2021 record to 25-5. Golubic may have lost both finals to rising teenagers, Clara Tauson in Lyon and Leylah Fernandez in Monterrey, but few had foreseen this kind of resurgence for her.
Nguyen: Jessica Pegula. The 27-year-old American leads the tour in Top 10 wins so far (4) and only three players won more matches on the hardcourts. Starting the season at No.64, Pegula made the Round of 16 at the Yarra Valley Classic and then, playing in just her second Australian Open main draw, advanced to her first major quarterfinal with wins over Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina. A few weeks later, she was back in qualifying at the Qatar Total Open and there was no sign of a let-down.
She made her first WTA 500 semifinal, and a week later she was into her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal, where she had match points on Elise Mertens. Add a run to the Round of 16 at the Miami Open, where she had six match points against Maria Sakkari, and that’s a blistering start for the Buffalo native. She’s now put herself in position to be seeded at the Slams, which is good news for the top players. No one wants to face Jessie early.
Which Top 20 player impressed you the most?
Juzwiak: Even during her best seasons, when she was winning majors and at or near the top of the WTA rankings, Garbiñe Muguruza displayed a great disparity in results from week to week. What impressed me the most about the Spaniard’s hardcourt season has been her consistency throughout the calendar without sacrificing the aggression and tactical focus, which has pushed her back into the very top pack of elite contenders at every event.
At the Australian Open, Muguruza held match point in a round-of-16 loss against Naomi Osaka, the eventual champ’s biggest challenge en route to the title. That run was bookended by two final appearances, and even after a tough loss in the Doha final to Petra Kvitova and no first-round bye the very next week in Dubai, Muguruza got to work and powered through six more wins to take home the trophy. Muguruza could have eased up after an already grueling run, but she continued to put in the work and was justly rewarded.
Macpherson: Elise Mertens. Since the tour resumption last August, the Belgian has quietly leveled up. Her continuation of that form in 2021 is evident in her results - a title at the Gippsland Trophy, a semifinal run in Dubai, fourth-round showings at the Australian Open and Miami - and a 13-3 record overall. But what stands out is the actual tennis she delivers in every tournament. Mertens is frequently involved in some of the highest-quality matches, including her three-set wins over Elina Svitolina at the Gippsland Trophy, Jessica Pegula in Dubai and Anett Kontaveit in Miami, as well as her loss to Muguruza in the Dubai semifinals.
Mertens’ mindset is an asset, both in terms of her sharp shot selection and her scoreboard tenacity, evidenced by her comeback from three match points down to beat Pegula. Mertens hasn't yet showed the ability to translate this into results at the top of the game, but her current position on tour is reminiscent of Angelique Kerber circa 2012-15: not yet seen as a Grand Slam threat herself, but a consistent presence. And we’ve seen how that story has gone.
Nguyen: The unrelenting consistency from Muguruza has been such a welcome sight. As Jason noted, it’s not just about her tour-leading 21 wins and three finals. It’s also about how she has handled her five losses: no dwelling, just working. When Muguruza is in the mix, the tenor of the tour shifts. She’s a force.
But for me, it’s a tie between the two best players in the world, Barty and Osaka, who also happen to be the only two women to win titles after being down match point. The pressure can be crippling at the top and Barty and Osaka have handled their 2021 starts with a matter-of-fact calm. That’s not easy in normal times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic that has added even more barriers and distractions in a sport that favors routine.
It’s easy to forget now that Osaka had a daunting draw at the Australian Open, where she had to run the gauntlet of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Garcia, Ons Jabeur, Muguruza, Hsieh Su-Wei, Serena Williams, and Jennifer Brady. No problem. Osaka did it with only one set lost. Barty not only won her first tournament after being sidelined for 10 months, beating a white-hot Muguruza in the final, but at the Miami Open, with her No.1 ranking under threat in her first tournament outside of Australia, Barty knocked off three Top 10 opponents in succession to successfully defend a title for the first time in her career. Heavy are the heads that wear the crowns. Ash and Naomi have stood tall.
What match stands out the most?
Juzwiak: Iga Swiatek’s 6-2, 6-2 victory over Belinda Bencic in the Adelaide final was not only a key example of power tennis, but also as a marker of what’s to come. Swiatek had complete control of that match, defeating a fellow Top 20 player in just over an hour with 22 winners to just six unforced errors. It also capped off a week in which she stormed to the title without the loss of a set, just as she had done at the French Open last year.
Swiatek caused a sensation by romping to the Roland Garros crown for her first-ever WTA title, and to follow up that stunner by getting back into the winner’s circle just three events later, during an often-changing tournament landscape, demonstrates that she has the fortitude to live up to the lofty expectations. It will not be smooth sailing all the time for Swiatek, particularly in this era of tremendous depth, but a comprehensive trip back to a trophy so quickly signifies that her goals are well within reach.
Macpherson: Daria Kasatkina’s 1-6, 6-0, 6-2 win against Svetlana Kuznetsova in St. Petersburg semifinals. It's hard to know where to start with the tremendous week that was the 2021 St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy. The tournament began with a host of withdrawals and without a Top 30 player in the draw, but after a wild ride that featured thriller after thriller and a record seven Russians in the last eight, it ended as one of the most memorable events of the season so far.
There were plenty of matches longer and closer than this semifinal - six clocked in over the two-and-a-half-hour mark - but it was a first-time matchup I'd been anticipating for a while. Kasatkina is very much a successor to Kuznetsova in Russian tennis in terms of a game honed on Spanish clay centered around a heavy topspin forehand. Kuznetsova, the naturally more aggressive of the two, used her weight of shot to dictate the first set. But this seemed to kickstart Kasatkina's own offensive game - an element that had been lacking during her 2019 slump - to turn the match around and go on to the title.
Nguyen: Was there a more consequential match than Naomi Osaka’s match-points saving 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Garbiñe Muguruza in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open? The two youngest multiple-major champions, both in top form, facing off for the first time in their careers, with the winner to face Hsieh Su-Wei, Serena Williams and Jennifer Brady for the title. A win for Muguruza and she would have been one U.S. Open away from completing the career Grand Slam. Instead, the duel was a showcase for Osaka’s preternatural ability to will herself out of a tailspin to win.
After making a slew of poor unforced errors to fall behind 4-5, 15-40 in the final set, Osaka took a deep breath, calmed herself and told herself to stop it. She didn’t make a single unforced error for the rest of the match. How does she do that?
What is your main takeaway from the first three months of the season?
Juzwiak: Proven championship experience at the top-most level has been key to rolling with the vagaries of the 2021 calendar. The players who have had the most success this season, especially at the biggest events - Osaka in Melbourne, Muguruza in Dubai, Barty and Andreescu in Miami - have already earned laurels at Grand Slam and WTA 1000 level, and did so early in their careers. Backed by both the knowledge that the capacity to win major events is within them and the freedom of having little to prove, players like Barty and Andreescu can show up in Miami (the first tournament on North American soil in over a year for each of them) and pick up right where they left off. This is proving to be one of the keys to another year where expectations will have to be constantly revised.
Macpherson: The key to success in 2021 is to take global uncertainty in stride - but a fair amount of proven talent doesn't hurt. Covid-19 restrictions, often last-minute, continue to play a major role in players' lives as they resume international competition. Tellingly, many of those excelling in these conditions are the tour's more low-key, introverted figures. Jennifer Brady, who emerged from hard quarantine in Australia as sharp as she'd entered it to make her first Grand Slam final, is the most obvious example.
But Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka and Miami winner Ashleigh Barty also fit into this trend - as well as Australian Open quarterfinalist Hsieh Su-Wei, who posted excitedly about quarantine on social media on returning home to Chinese Taipei. All that said, the effects on players' schedules also mean that an ability to hit the ground running without much match play is important - something Osaka, Barty and Miami runner-up Bianca Andreescu have all already demonstrated.
Nguyen: We’re finally getting the matchups we’ve always wanted. The unprecedented depth on the WTA Tour has been undeniable over the past four seasons, but whether due to circumstance, slumps or surges, marquee matchups and new rivalries have been more rare than one would think. But 2021 has delivered every week.
Barty and Muguruza faced off in the Yarra Valley Classic final, just their second meeting since 2017. The Australian Open delivered the first meeting between Osaka and Muguruza, another Osaka-Serena showdown, an electric first-time power battle between Serena and Sabalenka, as well as another memorable Swiatek-Halep duel. The list goes on: Swiatek and Bencic met for the first time in the Adelaide final, Sabalenka and Muguruza had played only once, back in 2018, before facing off in back-to-back weeks in Doha and Dubai. To cap it all off, Miami’s embarrassment of riches in the high-profile match department ended with the first meeting between Barty and Andreescu. More of this, please.
What is your one early clay-court prediction?
Juzwiak: For all that I said above about the players who appear to be rising to the top of the heap, I cannot help but smile as I try to forecast the clay-court season. It can be a true coin-flip as to whether the surface confirms the patterns of the first quarter or completely redefines the landscape with a pack of unexpected results. However, my top expectation is that Naomi Osaka, who is determined to improve her results at elite events off of hardcourts, will do exactly that.
Whether steamrolling through a swift win or staring down a match point, the World No.2 starts every single point the same way. This focus should carry her to significantly more wins than she had in the past on clay, where the strokes that tend to work quite easily on hardcourt can lose a bit of their efficacy. This desire to do more will push her through the tougher matches, and though, say, a Roland Garros title might not yet be in the offing, it’s plausible to see her winning enough matches to wrest the World No.1 ranking back after Paris.
Macpherson: Two of our past four Roland Garros champions were younger players who had never previously won any WTA title, and a third had never reached a final on clay before lifting up her first Grand Slam trophy in Paris. Predictions on clay, I've learned, rarely work out. But one thing I'm sure of is that Sara Sorribes Tormo will make an impact. The Spaniard has become a serious problem for opponents on hard courts this year.
Patience, stamina, impeccable court smarts and a willingness to stay on court for however long it takes to get the physical or mental upper hand have all contributed to a stellar series of results. Following a maiden title in Guadalajara, a semifinal in Monterrey and quarterfinals in Abu Dhabi and Miami, how much further can Sorribes Tormo go on her beloved clay? I'm expecting a deep high-level run, perhaps at home in Madrid, as well as for Sorribes Tormo to grind out a Top 10 upset or two with her indefatigable defence.
Nguyen: Just one? Sorry, can’t do that. Barty and Swiatek will handle their first clay seasons since winning their respective Roland Garros titles incredibly well. Osaka will erase any and all doubt that might exist over whether she can translate her dominant hard-court game to clay. Jennifer Brady will be the latest big-hitting American to shed her clay-phobia and make deep runs on the dirt. And Sara Sorribes Tormo will save match points en route to a three-hour victory. Because that’s what Sara Sorribes Tormo was born to do.