The new season is on, and there’s no time like right now for rivalries, both new and old, to take center stage.
Whether it’s longtime opponents in Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka or the obvious budding showdown between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, there are no shortages of great rivalries on tour.
But what about some rivalries that haven’t fully materialized yet? Again, the possibilities are endless, but with that, here are a few we hope will emerge this season.
Iga Swiatek vs. Naomi Osaka
When it comes to one-off matches that occupy a disproportionate amount of real estate in my mind, the 2019 Rogers Cup third-round duel between Naomi Osaka and Iga Swiatek stands alone. Back then, Swiatek was an 18-year-old qualifier ranked No.65 who had broken the Top 100 just three months before. Osaka was already a two-time major champion and the sitting World No.2. Toronto would be the site of their first and only meeting so far.
Osaka prevailed 7-6(4), 6-4, but Swiatek left a lasting impression. It was an absolute slugfest that elicited some of the best corner-to-corner defense from both women, and when the two met for the first time at the net, Osaka went out of her way to pay respects to the newcomer's game, even tweeting Swiatek's own hot shot against her.
Shot of the match. Me after she got that : 😨👏👏👏👏👏 https://t.co/jaRbZVMqem— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) August 9, 2019
"It's just so different, though, the way that she strikes the ball," Osaka said after the win. "I can't even compare it. But for me, the most impressive thing that I saw tonight was her movement. She's a crazy good mover, just sliding. So hopefully I can learn that from her."
The two would form a kinship after Toronto. Osaka reached out to practice with Swiatek and grab an occasional dinner at tournaments. When Swiatek joined the Grand Slam Champions Club a year later at Roland Garros, Osaka was keeping tabs and cheering her on.
With the pandemic interrupting the 2020 season and Osaka playing a limited schedule in 2021, the opportunities for a rematch have been few and far between. Now, with No.9 Swiatek and No.13 Osaka occupying a similar ranking space, the two likely would not meet until deeper in a tournament, heightening the stakes of any future matchups. And the fact that Osaka is the superior hard-court player, while Swiatek gets the edge on clay and grass, only adds to the intrigue of what will happen when their games lock up again. – Courtney Nguyen
Ashleigh Barty vs. Aryna Sabalenka
Ashleigh Barty and Aryna Sabalenka are the two top-seeded players in this week’s Adelaide International draw. Get used to it, for they are also at the top of the WTA rankings ladder, Barty at No.1 (for 102 consecutive weeks now) and Sabalenka at No.2.
“She’s a great player,” Sabalenka said of Barty on Monday. “She can do everything on the court. That’s why she’s No.1. I always like playing matches against her. It’s always great battles. It’s always huge fights.”
Going forward, sign us up for this rivalry-in-the-making. Both players are in their prime – Barty is 25 and Sabalenka turns 24 in May – and play an aesthetically pleasing brand of tennis. They could be seeing each other quite a bit this year.
They met three times in 2021 – and each and every time, those matches went the distance. Barty won in the Miami quarterfinals and the Stuttgart final, and Sabalenka went on to take the Madrid final.
When Barty was asked about her chances for winning a first Australian Open title, her response was this: “It’s as good as anyone’s. There will be 128 of us in the draw. We’ll all do the same thing, do the best we can.
“Obviously, the more you play someone, the more you understand how they play. But they also get the same sense with you. A lot of the time, it’s about matchups.”
And this matchup has always been compelling.
The head-to-head, going back to a first-round match at the 2018 Australian Open, is all even at four. Barty won that first meeting in three sets.
It could happen again on Jan. 29 in the Australian Open final.
“I played against her in Melbourne once and it was really tough,” Sabalenka said. “People support her really, really crazy. It’s going to be tough, but if it’s going to happen – whatever. I don’t care. In the final I don’t want to think about people supporting her.” – Greg Garber
Karolina Pliskova vs. Barbora Krejcikova
You only need to review the roster of Billie Jean King Cup champions to see the players from the Czech Republic are a growing force of talent. At the premier national team event in women’s tennis, the Czechs have won six of the past 10 titles.
Currently at the top of the Czech roster, Karolina Pliskova and Barbora are both in the Top 5 in the rankings. Pliskova has been a mainstay at the pinnacle of the game, finishing the past six years in the Top 10. But Krejcikova crashed the singles Top 50 for the first time in 2021 – and then stormed into the upper echelon with a Roland Garros singles (and doubles) title in the process.
By the end of last year, the top Czech ranking came down to the wire. A stronger performance by Pliskova at the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara gave her the edge, finishing the season at World No.4, one spot ahead of Krejcikova. In fact, Pliskova’s win over Krejcikova in Guadalajara cemented her rankings lead, and she had to turn that match around from a 6-0, 4-2 deficit to prevail.
It was a fascinating tussle for Czech year-end supremacy, and sparked a new chapter to this rivalry. Pliskova had won their two previous matches, but the first was back in 2011 when both were well outside the Top 100, and Krejcikova was still ranked outside the Top 200 for their second meeting in 2018.
It would be enthralling to see them line up more direct encounters at their current levels to see who stays ahead. Oh, and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Olympic silver medalist Marketa Vondrousova and their other compatriots can always have a say in this domestic battle royale as well. – Jason Juzwiak
Coco Gauff vs. Marta Kostyuk
With so many fresh faces bursting through to the top of the game over the past few years, there's a plethora of rivalries that are still in their nascent stages, or even yet to get off the ground. We have seen only one match between Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, and Aryna Sabalenka and Leylah Fernandez. Barbora Krejcikova has yet to play Ons Jabeur, and Simona Halep has yet to play Paula Badosa. Serena Williams has barely faced any of the current Top 10 in the past few years. Emma Raducanu has barely faced any established WTA Tour player at all. Any combination of the above (and much more) would make for a popcorn match.
However, there's a particular matchup between two rising teenagers that's long intrigued me, and is still yet to happen. Coco Gauff, 17, and Marta Kostyuk, 19, possess much in common. They're both supreme athletes with phenomenal reflexes and hand skills. They can retrieve balls that you'd swear no human could, and pull off miraculous hot-shot winners at full, elastic stretch. They thrive in rat-a-tat net exchanges, and their drop shots bamboozle opponents time and again. They can also be lethal from the baseline when so minded, with their backhands being the standout wing for both.
Gauff and Kostyuk also bring an element of chaos to their matches that makes them both riveting to watch. Their wide repertoire of shots and strategies isn't always a strength, and the challenge for them is to corral it into a coherent, consistent game plan. In all likelihood, both are probably still some years off their final peak form. But in the meantime, what tremendous fun a clash between them would be. – Alex Macpherson