Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver were the greatest team in the history of women’s doubles.
The relationship began ominously, when Shriver – a 16-year-old amateur – stunned Navratilova in the singles semifinals of the US Open in 1978. Still, they eventually joined forces and wound up winning 79 doubles titles together, including seven at the Australian Open, five at Wimbledon, and four each at the French Open and US Open. They fashioned a record 109-match win streak from 1983-85.
We’ve brought them together for another tour of duty, breaking down some of likely storylines in the coming year. There’s a lot to navigate. No one knows when Venus and Serena Williams will return to the game. Or when Bianca Andreescu, Karolina Pliskova and Jennifer Brady will find themselves back in play. What about those players – Emma Raducanu, Belinda Bencic and Ons Jabeur – whose season has already been disrupted by the COVID-19 virus?
Now, as then, these stellar doubles players don’t always agree. (See the first question below.) It’s part of what made them such a complete, complementary team. More often, they see the world through similar, discerning eyes. Here are their takes on five of the likely women’s tennis storylines people will be talking about in 2022.
Can Ashleigh Barty sustain the No.1 ranking with which she’s finished the past three years – and held for 101 consecutive weeks?
When the WTA rankings were frozen for four months, some skeptics wondered if Barty could maintain her form when she elected to stay in Australia for the balance of the 2020 season after the global pandemic intervened.
Her answer in 2021 was beyond debate. Barty, the WTA’s Player of the Year, won her second major title at Wimbledon, WTA 1000 events in Miami and Madrid and a tour-high five titles. That journey required a stout six months on the road.
And finally...— wta (@WTA) December 7, 2021
🖐 Tour-leading five WTA titles in 2021
🙌 Reigning Wimbledon champion
☝️ Third straight Year-End World No.1 ranking@ashbarty receives the honor of WTA Player of the Year for the second time in her career 🏆 pic.twitter.com/awUBReudMV
Suddenly, Barty finds herself in extremely exalted company. She joins Stefanie Graf, Serena Williams, Navratilova and Chris Evert as the only women to finish the year at No.1 for three consecutive seasons; they are also the only five to hold that ranking for more than 100 consecutive weeks.
“I am proud I was able to finish the year at No.1, especially after the challenging and unpredictable season,” Barty said. “Being away from home for so long was really tough for not only me but my whole team. We went into 2021 knowing it was going to be an adventure and it definitely was, I wouldn’t change it.”
Barty shut her season down after losing to Shelby Rogers at the US Open the first week in September, so she should certainly be fresh.
Navratilova’s take: “Three years as the No.1, although some of it was aided by COVID-19, and some of it unaided, because she couldn’t play as much as she wanted to. So it was kind of a wash. Chances are she would have been No.1, with or without COVID-19.
“At the end of 2022, I would be hard-pressed to pick somebody over her. No.1. she’s the most complete player out there. She's also well-rested and has had time to improve her game even more. So everybody’s behind, and it’s going to be hard for those nipping at her heels to catch up. Can anybody be healthy enough, consistent enough to take away the No.1 ranking? And play better than her for the entire year? If they can, I’ll take my hat off. But I don’t see that happening if she’s healthy."
Shriver’s take: “Actually, I think there will be a new No.1. I’m not exactly sure whom, but I think Ash has had a great run and I think it could be somebody in the Top 5.
“I’m looking at the points, and I think the most likely one is Garbiñe Muguruza. It could be Aryna Sabalenka, if she buries those demons. It wasn’t just what Garbiñe showed at Guadalajara, but she and [coach] Conchita [Martinez] have developed a solid partnership. I feel she’s underachieved in the last couple of years, but I think the second half of 2021 she started to show more of the promise that took her to a French and a Wimbledon title. I’m looking at Ash’s lead and it’s not insignificant.
“Here’s the thing: After the US Open, Ash lost to Shelby Rogers and then she shut down her year. So if she wanted to chase the year-end ranking – and who knows where the WTA is going to go after the US Open with China for the moment out of play – let’s say it’s something that makes sense for Ash. Certainly, she’s got no points falling off after that.
“But I feel like Ash Barty, as great as she is, I don’t see her as being on top for 154 consecutive weeks. She’s so solid, but I just think someone else is going to step up.”
How will the two most recent French Open champions, Iga Swiatek (2020) and Barbora Krejcikova (2021), back up their recent success?
They were both revelations when they won their first career major titles. Swiatek, almost under the radar, was the only woman to reach the second week of all four majors in 2021. She finished at No.9 – and she’s still only 20 years old.
After the season, Swiatek announced she had parted ways with Piotr Sierzputowski and will be working with Tomasz Wiktorowski, the former coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, on an interim basis.
Krejcikova scored a career-high No.3 ranking and settled at No.5 – after starting the year at No.65.
Swiatek could have been talking for both of them when she said, “I would say the most tricky thing was learning how to play with the higher ranking because usually I was an underdog. I still feel like I didn’t figure it out completely.”
Navratilova’s take: “I think they’re both in the same boat, in that things just blew up for both of them. They both backed it up pretty well – Iga over a year and a half and Barbora over six months. I think they were both kind of exhausted at the end of the year. Because when things happen that quickly, it affects you more. Change, it’s not gradual. It’s like climbing a mountain – when you climb it step by step, you can handle it, but when you get dropped off at the top of the mountain, you’re out of breath.
“So I think it took them awhile to acclimate, but I think they should be OK if they got enough rest, emotionally, during the offseason. Their games are really solid. Barbora needs to get a bit quicker and sort out the service toss. She plays the most like Barty, with a decent slice and good feel. Swiatek, maybe the slice could be better. Both should emotionally be in a better place where everything is more familiar in that role as a favorite.”
Shriver’s take: “I think they’ll be pretty solid again and I believe they’ll both stay in the Top 10. The one I would question more is Krejcikova, just because of the exhaustion of her efforts in 2021, becoming a top singles and doubles player, playing the Billie Jean King Cup, flying to Guadalajara. I think Swiatek is better positioned to have a good year. Ultimately, it will be the year we find out if Krejcikova is here to stay. Here, meaning the Top 10.”
Is Naomi Osaka going to return to dominance?
Osaka posted a picture of herself flying (business class) the 16 hours to Australia from Los Angeles wearing a t-shirt featuring Mona Lisa on the front. That cryptic smile – well, that’s about right.
Barty is the betting favorite for the Australian Open – but only marginally ahead of Osaka. No one else is even close. No one knows exactly how Osaka will respond after playing only eight matches (5-3) after withdrawing from the second round at Roland Garros in June.
She lost to Marketa Vondrousova in the round of 16 at the Tokyo Olympics, Jil Teichmann in the Cincinnati round of 16 and Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the US Open. Her heart didn’t seem to be in it, and she took some needed time off.
For the record, Osaka is only 24 years old and has won four career major titles, including two of the past three in Melbourne.
Navratilova’s take: “Naomi dominated the majors, particularly the hardcourts, but never the little tournaments. Kind of like Serena. I think to leave your mark on the game, you need to dominate all the events, a la Barty, a la Djokovic. They concentrate on majors, but you can’t just use the other tournaments as warmups.
“The less you play, the more the pressure builds up and the less feel you have for the game itself. You need to put in the reps. If she can do that, she has the game to blow anybody off the court because she’s quick, moves well and is strong on both wings. And she’s got the massive serve as well. She just needs to play more matches.”
Shriver’s take: “First off, if she returns to dominance, it will still be only on a hardcourt. Which begs the question: Can you be a dominant player on one surface? Look at the greats of all time, Navratilova, Graf, Serena, Roger, Novak – it’s been a multi-surface dominance.
“The other big question: Can she return to her best physical and emotional condition? If she can, yes, she can be the dominant hardcourt player. I think missing Wimbledon last year, and because it was cancelled in 2020, when Osaka returns to a grass court it will be three years since she played a match on a grass court. Three years away from your most insecure surface is … forever. Grass is going to be a tough go.
“Clay is slightly less mysterious for her, but a challenge for sure.”
How will Emma Raducanu back up her breakthrough win at the US Open?
Even in retrospect, her startlingly steep trajectory is difficult to comprehend. Raducanu, only 18 years old, qualified for the US Open main draw by winning three matches. And then she won seven more, including one over Tokyo gold medalist Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals, soon-to-be Top 10 player Maria Sakkari in the semifinals and fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez in the final.
Previously, no qualifier of either gender had ever won a Grand Slam in the Open era. But that changed in New York, with potential sponsors swarming her management team and the BBC awarding her their Sports Personality of the Year.
So Raducanu heads into 2022 still a teenager. She’s played all of eight WTA events and coming off what for many would be the achievement of a lifetime. Oh, and she swapped out coach Andrew Richardson for Torben Beltz, Angelique Kerber’s longtime mentor.
Navratilova’s take: “It’s going to be hard for her this year. Players have seen her, they know what to do against her. But most of all, she just needs matches. She’s the biggest wildcard for me. Because clearly, she has the ability to play great tennis.
“Can she replicate it consistently enough? Eight WTA-level tournaments in her life? That’s half a season. I’d go into Wimbledon with 10, 12 matches under my belt. It’s going to be so much to handle physically, playing more matches, but everybody’s going to be gunning for her – that’s the thing that’s going to look good on their resume.
“And the pressure’s going to be on her emotionally, as well. Being a Brit, she’s under a huge microscope, and it’s hard to get away from it. We’ll see. Coaching uncertainty, too. To me, that she let go of the coach that got her to the US Open was unfathomable. I really don’t get that.”
Shriver’s take: “I think 2022 is going to continue to be a challenge for her. I think it’s going to be 2023 when we have a clearer idea of what her consistency level is going to be. I might be wrong, but it was such a sudden, unnatural step from qualifying to winning a major – never been done before – followed up by all these new business partnerships, recognition and coaching changes.
“The only thing that has remained the same is her name, the sport she plays and her agent. I feel like everything else around her has changed, and when you’re a teenager you’re already going through a lot of changes. I’d be surprised if she’s still in the Top 20 at the end of the year.”
Of the multi-Grand Slam winners not named Venus or Serena or Naomi (Garbiñe Muguruza, Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova) who among them will have the strongest year?
Kerber came alive on the grass this summer, winning the title at Bad Homburg and reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon. Like Kerber, Kvitova is still formidable and ranked among the Top 20. So, too, Halep, who despite some injury issues has the ability to go deep in meaningful matches. Azarenka went all the way to the fall final at Indian Wells, while Muguruza won the year-end WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
Navratilova’s take: “I think Muguruza after how she played in Guadalajara. Not just that she won, but how she comported herself. Her relationship with Conchita is really now paying nice dividends. Conchita is a great tennis mind, and she’ll move her into becoming an even more complete player.
“Garbiñe really wants it; she’s in a happy place. Her personal life is settled, she has a supportive boyfriend and Conchita is amazing. She’s in a really, really good place and I would be surprised if she doesn’t win a major next year.”
Shriver’s take: "Muguruza. She’s the one that’s going to do it. Her being ranked No.3 isn’t that big a deal for her; it’s not rarified air by her standards. Winning the WTA Finals, it was fun to see how excited she and her whole team were. Honestly, this is a player who is accustomed to winning majors. In my mind, she’s the leading candidate among those multi-major winners mentioned that will add to her total in 2022."