The North American summer hardcourt season is underway this week at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic and continues on through the back-to-back WTA 1000 events at the National Bank Open in Montreal and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati before finishing at the US Open, the final major of the season.
After a flurry of high-stakes tennis at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we take pause to reflect on the biggest takeaways from the last three months and look ahead to the hardcourts. Will the Tokyo 2020 podium foreshadow what's to come in New York? Or will the standout players on clay and grass continue their tour momentum? Or will the returns of Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, and Simona Halep set the storylines?
Web Editors Alex Macpherson, senior writer Courtney Nguyen, and freelance writer Greg Garber weigh in.
What was your biggest takeaway from the last three months through the clay, grass, and Olympic swings?
Garber: That, in a theme that seems to have become the norm, no one dominated.
Barbora Krejcikova, Ashleigh Barty and Belinda Bencic won the big titles – on red clay, grass and the blue hardcourts of Tokyo. The finalists – Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Karolina Pliskova and Marketa Vondrousova – were all different, too.
The U.S. Open represents an opportunity for someone to step up and grab Player of the Year honors.
Macpherson: The top line would be not to write anyone off. Since May, we’ve seen a 25-year-old hitherto known as a doubles specialist establish herself at the top of the singles game; a World No.1 pull off a successful mission to win her dream Grand Slam; and a former teenage prodigy turn her year around to capture her biggest title yet.
Anyone watching the post-Wimbledon 250s would have also seen more evidence of a deep pool of talent: performances by Elena-Gabriela Ruse, Clara Burel and Maryna Zanevska demonstrated that the gap between those outside the Top 100 and those established nearer the top is smaller than many might expect.
It’s also evident how many sliding-doors moments might have altered how the big tournaments played out. What if Bianca Andreescu, two points from beating eventual French Open semifinalist Tamara Zidansek, had closed that match out in round one? What if Ashleigh Barty’s hip injury had happened before Wimbledon, rather than Roland Garros? What if Angelique Kerber had landed in the bottom half of the Wimbledon draw? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing – but with those jostling for prizes so close to each other, every detail matters in analyzing WTA draws in 2021.
Nguyen: I still don't think we're appreciating what Krejcikova has done. She may have been an unexpected Roland Garros champion, but for all the talk over the last years about players slumping after their major breakthrough, the Czech is absolutely soaring.
It's worth reiterating again: One year ago today, she had never cracked the Top 100 in singles. Yet since the tour turned to clay she's won three titles (Strasbourg, Roland Garros, Prague) and has won 22 of her last 24 matches. Her two losses? To Wimbledon champion Barty and Olympic gold medalist Bencic. Oh, and let's be sure to add her doubles title at Roland Garros and Olympic gold.
How much do you read into the results at Tokyo 2020?
Garber: Not a whole lot.
While I’m happy for the gold-medal winners – Bencic, Krejcikova and Pavlyuchenkova – I don’t see any long-term impact.
Five years ago, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig won gold in Rio de Janeiro and recently said it had a negative effect on her game. This year’s medalists, including bronze singles winner Elina Svitolina, came in more accomplished than Puig, so I don’t see that happening.
Macpherson: In the short term, not much. The tight turnaround, compressed schedule and time zone changes have historically meant that Olympic success rarely carries over into the North American events. Having said that, Bencic is a player who thrives on confidence and the US Open has been her best major by some way (2014 QF, 2019 SF), so if she manages her schedule wisely she can certainly go deep in New York.
In the long term, a bit more. Bencic and Marketa Vondrousova were teenage prodigies whose junior and early pro results had many tipping them for these kinds of career achievements. That the Olympic final was considered surprising says more about how quick fans and media can be to write players off if they don’t sustain a smooth, easy path upwards – even if, as with Bencic and Vondrousova, injuries played a significant role in setting them back. Their Olympic runs were a reminder that this was where they were always meant to be.
Nguyen: I find the results outside the medal rounds to be far more meaningful than the final podium. That Naomi Osaka managed the Olympic pressure - she lit the torch! - to tally two wins was good to see. Paula Badosa continues to be an absolute menace through the draw and who knows what the podium looks like if she wasn't felled by the heat in the quarterfinals.
And Elena Rybakina may have finished in fourth place, but she's now made the Roland Garros quarterfinal, Eastbourne semifinal, Wimbledon Round of 16, and Olympic semifinals. Rybakina is finally finding the form that put her on everyone's radar at the start of 2020. It wasn't a fluke.
What are you looking forward to most during the North American hardcourt swing?
Garber: The play of Bianca Andreescu.
Two years ago, she won Toronto and the US Open back-to-back – at the age of 19. Those remain her greatest accomplishments. After two seasons of challenges, I’m curious how the Canadian will respond.
Macpherson: Danielle Collins and Yulia Putintseva have long been two of the most entertaining players on the WTA Tour, combining big personalities with breathtaking shotmaking. Judging from the past few weeks, they’re ready to bring it in North America. Both went on title missions on the European clay after Wimbledon and came away with success, Collins capturing her first in Palermo and Putintseva her second in Budapest. The consequent confidence boost has been evident in San Jose this week, where the pair have already been responsible for some dazzling highlights.
I for one am ready for more.
Nguyen: I'm not complicated. I can't wait to see Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Osaka, and Andreescu back in a WTA draw. If all goes well, that will happen at the Western & Southern Open and the US Open.
I'm also curious to see how Barty handles the US Open. It is now the only Slam at which she has not made a semifinal. She has yet to make it past the Round of 16. In case it hasn't been said, she's already halfway to a career Grand Slam.
Who needs a strong summer hardcourt swing?
Macpherson: Andreescu has been extraordinarily luckless over the past two years, with injuries and Covid-19 both playing large roles in either keeping her out of action or preventing her from building momentum. Rough first-round draws at Roland Garros (against eventual semifinalist Tamara Zidansek) and Wimbledon (against the experienced Alizé Cornet, who had beaten her two weeks previously in Berlin) didn’t help, and her record in 2021 is just 12-7. Consequently, over the next month, Andreescu will have to defend 2900 points held over from her 2019 Toronto/US Open winning streak – over half her total. Failure to do so could see her drop out of the Top 20.
Similarly, last year’s US Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka hasn’t had the best run of health in 2021. Four of the nine tournaments the Belarusian has contested this year have ended in walkovers. When she has played, her form has been far off the scintillating resurgence she delivered in 2020, fuelled as much by pumped-up positivity as her finest ball-striking. Azarenka also has over half her points total to defend over the next month, and could be in danger of falling out of the Top 40.
Nguyen: Andreescu. It's not just that she's been snake-bitten all year and now has a load of points to defend, but the North American hardcourts are Andreescu's bread and butter. Since the start of 2019, her strike rate on her home continent is second-to-none:
2019 Oracle Challenger Series 125K, Newport Beach: Champion
2019 Abierto Mexicano Telcel, Acapulco: Semifinals
2019 BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells: Champion
2019 Miami Open: Round of 16 (ret.)
2019 Rogers Cup, Toronto: Champion
2019 US Open, New York: Champion
2021 Miami Open: Final (ret.)
The next few weeks offer a great opportunity for the Canadian to get matches and find the winning formula that made her the most exciting breakout star of 2019.
Garber: Halep will fall out of the Top 10 Monday after 373 consecutive weeks. She’s been sidelined after suffering a calf injury in Rome and is in the field for Montreal, where she is a two-time champion. This is a terrific chance for her to regain her footing going into the US Open.
Who are the under-the-radar players you’ll be keeping an eye on over the next month?
Garber: I’m curious how first-time winners on Tour, Badosa and Veronika Kudermetova, will finish out the year. Badosa, ranked No.30, won the Serbia Ladies Open, while No.32 Kudermetova took the Volvo Car Open title.
And, how will Vondrousova fare after winning the silver medal for singles in Tokyo? The 22-year-old Czech Republic player showed she’s better than her No.42 ranking.
Macpherson: This time last year, Marta Kostyuk snuck into the US Open main draw and made the third round, where she stretched eventual champion Osaka all the way in a high-quality encounter. The Ukrainian used that run as a springboard on to the main tour, cracking the Top 100 at the end of 2020, and she has consolidated that in 2021 thanks to results such as an Abu Dhabi semifinal and Roland Garros fourth round.
Kostyuk has seemed on the verge of a truly breakout result all year: the range of her repertoire can be dazzling, but her rawness in putting it all together is also evident, sometimes within the same match. But it’s only a matter of time before Kostyuk’s chaos clicks into coherence, and the 19-year-old should be fresh and ready to go in North America.
Nguyen: Two first-time champions that I'll be tuning in to watch are Berlin champion Liudmila Samsonova and Bogota champion Maria Camila Osorio Serrano. Samsonova's ball-striking during the grass season was a revelation and I want to see what she can do on the hardcourts.
As for budding Colombian star Osorio Serrano, her incredible breakout season - she ended last season at No.186 and is now up to No.73 - has been a delight. She was the junior US Open champion in 2019, so New York is right up her alley.