From a jam-packed Australian swing through an enticing trip around Europe and ultimately ending in Guadalajara, Mexico, this year’s tennis season left of with memories we won’t soon forget.
Whether it was the usual suspects such as Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty or newcomers like Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, there was no shortage of mainstream storylines that emerged as daily water-cooler fodder.
But intertwined were plenty of narratives that did not receive as much attention.
Take, for instance, Jessica Pegula. She wreaked havoc at the WTA 1000s. Pegula made her Top 100 debut just two years ago, and this past season, the 27-year-old enjoyed a breakout campaign, where she finished the year ranked No.18, second among all Americans to 12th-ranked Sofia Kenin.
The foundation of her surge was laid at the 1000-level events. After making her first major quarterfinal, at the Australian Open, Pegula went on to make the quarterfinals or better at four of the seven WTA 1000s, including the semifinals of Montreal before falling to eventual champion Camila Giorgi.
Pegula was hardly the only under-the-radar storyline from 2021. Here are a few others that stood out to us:
Coco Gauff still leading the way for teenagers
Coco Gauff keeps building. The 17-year-old American looked well on her way to finishing the 2021 season as the top-ranked teenager before Emma Raducanu stormed New York, but Gauff remains the standard-bearer for the teenage set on the WTA Tour. She is the youngest of the six teenagers ranked in the Top 100, and you have to go all the way do to No.264 to find a younger player on tour (that would be 17-year-old Czech Linda Noskova).
Gauff was thrust under the spotlight in 2019 after her star-making run to the fourth round of Wimbledon in her tour debut and she finished that year winning her first WTA title in Linz. Coming into the 2021 season ranked No.48, Gauff was able to find a level of consistency that has eluded most teenage phenoms, methodically checking off more career milestones while absorbing important learning experiences along the way.
Still playing a disciplined schedule under the Age Eligibility Rule, Gauff made the quarterfinals or better at seven tournaments, including her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal (Dubai) and semifinal (Rome) and first Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros. She also picked up her second career title, this time on the clay courts in Parma, Italy. It all culminated in her Top 20 debut after the US Open. – Courtney Nguyen
Nuria Párrizas Díaz proves it’s never too late
The assumption that youth is inherently more exciting than age is something that's taken for granted, but when you think about it is deeply strange and more than a little problematic. It's not just tennis but society, of course. Witness the mainstream cut-through of youngest-since records and all-teenage marquee matches, all of which came together in a surreal US Open final.
But why is the veteran slog considered less exciting than the nascent prodigy? One of the stories of the year was the rise of Nuria Párrizas Díaz. The Spaniard played her first pro match in 2006 but until this year had never played in a WTA main draw, nor had she been ranked higher than No.197. But she improved her year-end ranking by 167 places, from No.232 to No.65, thanks to a phenomenal 53-18 record. This included seven titles – four ITF W25s, one ITF W100 and two WTA 125s in Bastad and Columbus – and two WTA 250 quarterfinals in Bogota (her WTA debut) and Gdynia.
Párrizas Díaz also scored her first two Top 100 wins, played her first Grand Slam main draw at the US Open and ended her year by making her Billie Jean King Cup debut. In August, at the age of 30 years and 32 days, she became the fourth-oldest player to debut in the Top 100 after her Landisville ITF W100 title run.
Digging deeper also revealed a complex and inspiring story behind Párrizas Díaz's surge. She had already come back from a shoulder injury that doctors told her was career-ending and which sidelined her for a year, in 2015-16. During the 2020 lockdown, she began dating Carlos Boluda Purkiss, a former prodigy himself who was once dubbed "the new Rafael Nadal." Boluda Purkiss, who peaked at No.254 in the ATP rankings in 2018, quit his career in order to coach Párrizas Díaz, who had previously traveled alone. He had no coaching experience of his own, but his belief in her game – aggressive, flat hitting at odds with the traditional Spanish style – has paid off handsomely.
"Now I don't know what my limit is," Párrizas Díaz said after winning Columbus. Her compelling story isn't finished yet. – Alex Macpherson
Clara Tauson’s rise
There were 17 first-time WTA singles titlists in 2021, and a significant number of them followed up their first trophies with additional deep runs. Barbora Krejcikova, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur rode their title breakthroughs into the year-end Top 10, and newer faces such as teens Leylah Fernandez and Camila Osorio backed up their maiden titles with reappearances in championship matches.
But it was Clara Tauson who emerged as the teenager with the most WTA singles titles in 2021. The Dane, who turned 19 just this week, picked up two titles, doing so by demonstrating prowess on one surface in particular: indoor hardcourt.
Starting this year ranked outside the Top 150, Tauson had her WTA tour-level breakthrough in Lyon, where she zipped to her first WTA singles title as a qualifier. In a tour de force week, Tauson won two qualifying matches and five main-draw matches without dropping a set, counting Badosa, Camila Giorgi and Viktorija Golubic among her fallen opponents. Tauson lost an average of just five games per match during that event.
Tauson shook off a mid-year knee injury to re-emerge as an indoor hardcourt stalwart at year’s end. She notched her second WTA singles title, in Luxembourg, beating defending champion Jelena Ostapenko for the crown. Tauson then reached a third indoor hardcourt final in Courmayeur, where she at last took a loss in a final, to former Top 20 player Donna Vekic. Tauson finished 2021 inside the Top 50, bolstered by an incredible 18-2 win-loss record at WTA events on indoor hardcourt (14-2 in main draws and 4-0 in qualifying matches).
A former junior World No.1, Tauson has established herself as part of the rising teenage pack that includes Fernandez, Osorio, Coco Gauff and US Open champion Emma Raducanu. Tauson’s results overall show championship potential on every surface, but the tall and powerful Dane clearly thrives on indoor hardcourt, and she could become a near-unstoppable force in those conditions along the lines of peak Petra Kvitova. – Jason Juzwiak
Angelique Kerber’s re-emergence
The major season began poorly for Angelique Kerber, with a first-round loss at the Australian Open. The same thing happened at Roland Garros and in mid-June, with a disappointing record of 6-8 and a No.28 ranking, there were whispers that the 33-year-old German was considering retirement.
Under the radar would have been putting it charitably.
But multiple Grand Slam winners are built a little differently than the rest of us. When adversity descends, they tend to find a way. A year after giving birth to her son, Leo, Victoria Azarenka finished 2017 ranked No. 208. Two years later, she won the Cincinnati title and reached the final at the US Open, thrusting herself back into the conversation at the top of tennis.
Back on home turf – and the comfort of grass courts – Kerber was the tournament ambassador at the inaugural Bad Homburg Open. Playing her trademark game of air-tight defense with opportunistic offense, she ripped through the field, beating Amanda Anisimova in the quarterfinals, Petra Kvitova in the semifinals (in a third-set tiebreak) and Katerina Siniakova in the final.
“You play for these moments, being on court, playing in front of your fans, family, crowd,” Kerber said afterward. “I’m really happy that I won this tournament, a special tournament at home. It means a lot to me, and after all the months which we’ve gone through, standing here with this trophy, it’s something great.”
It was the first title for Kerber in nearly three years, going back to 2018 when she won her third career Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. It was Kerber’s third victory in Germany, to go with a pair of Stuttgart crowns, in 2015-16.
“Everyone knows I love to play on grass, and I really feel well,” Kerber said. “Of course, to play the final here, with this atmosphere and these fans, it’s great. I love to play on this surface, let’s see and hope if I can continue this next week [at Wimbledon].”
Was there ever a question? Kerber continued emphatically, winning her first five matches at the All England Club, defeating Coco Gauff in the round of 16 and Karolina Muchova in the quarterfinals. In the end, World No.1 Ashleigh Barty was too much in the semifinals, besting Kerber 6-3, 7-6 (3).
The move to hardcourts hardly checked her momentum. Kerber reached the semifinals in Cincinnati, giving her 14 wins in 16 matches. Later, she would advance to the round of 16 at the US Open and the quarterfinals at Indian Wells. Kerber finished the year at No.13 – and no one was talking about retirement. – Greg Garber