In years like 2023, the home stretch of the season comes alive.
The vibe of these past few months largely depends on how the year's shaken out so far. When there's been a dominant figure, such as Iga Swiatek last year or Serena Williams on many occasions in her career, it can feel like a victory lap or an inevitable coronation. When the biggest title winners haven't been the most consistent players, it can help make sense of the chaos or set up narratives for the following year.
Four different Grand Slam champions were crowned this year, several new rivalries emerged -- and there's no clear-cut Player of the Year. Even the most successful names of the season still have a question or two to answer. That means, heading into Cancun, there's still all to play for -- for everyone.
Aryna Sabalenka: Can she find the authority of her first quarter again?
On the one hand, Sabalenka got the major title monkey off her back at last at the Australian Open after three previous semifinal losses. She backed it up, too, demonstrating top-flight consistency -- including five consecutive Grand Slam semifinals -- to ascend to World No.1 in September.
On the other, there's a sense that Sabalenka has missed the opportunity to turn a very good season into an all-time great one. A handful of points separated her from a year with two Grand Slam titles and a further two finals. But instead of taking an iron grip of the tour, losses from leading positions in the late rounds of the last three majors have left Sabalenka in an oddly similar place to where she started 2023: facing questions about her poise at crunch time.
Additionally, Sabalenka's rivals haven't rested on their laurels. She edged Elena Rybakina in a three-set thriller in Melbourne, but the Kazakh player has won both their meetings since, including in the Beijing quarterfinals a month ago. She routed Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-0 in Indian Wells but was undone by the American at the US Open. And she split two meetings with Swiatek this year, both on clay.
Talking of clay, that's also where Sabalenka won her last title. She hasn't won a title since Madrid in May. A fourth of the year seems overdue, and she'll want to go all out for it in Cancun.
Iga Swiatek: How will she respond to losing her aura?
Between Roland Garros and Beijing, Swiatek's career was -- arguably for the first time ever -- on a downward trajectory. She did not win a title above WTA 250 level in this stretch, lost her US Open crown and her No.1 ranking, and even more significantly took losses to players who had previously struggled to win games from her: Jessica Pegula, Gauff, Veronika Kudermetova.
In some ways, Swiatek was the victim of her own success. The point of an all-time great season such as her 2022 is that it's not easily replicable. If Swiatek's reputation is such that a year that features a first Grand Slam title defense at the age of 22 is considered a fall-off, this only speaks to how elevated it is.
But as a player cementing herself as an all-time great, Swiatek's results inevitably now have a larger context. Was this the end of her window of dominance, or a blip before its resumption? Had she been figured out by her rivals -- particularly Rybakina, who won all three of their meetings this year? In a decade's time, will 2022 or 2023 be seen as the more remarkable year?
Coco Gauff: How long can she sustain her new level?
There's no doubt that Gauff has leveled up from the player who, this time last year, went 0-3 at the WTA Finals Fort Worth. In one month, over the course of the North American summer swing, the 19-year-old transformed herself from a player whose results were characterized by rock-solid consistency against those ranked beneath her into a legitimate contender for the biggest trophies.
It didn't come out of nowhere. Her rate of progress has been leading to this point all along.
Heading into the Asian swing, Gauff was even putting herself in the conversation for Player of the Year, with not only a Slam crown but the year's longest winning streak -- 16 matches -- under her belt.
Like every other new major champion, Gauff's challenge is now to deal with being the hunted, not the hunter. Her semifinal run in Beijing showed that she's unlikely to start racking up early losses. However, the loss to Swiatek that snapped her winning streak was also a warning. Swiatek is out to prove her loss to Gauff in Cincinnati was an aberration. Sabalenka will, no doubt, have something similar on her mind regarding the US Open final.
Elena Rybakina: Can she put herself back in the conversation?
Back in March, the concept of a WTA "Big Three" of Rybakina, Sabalenka and Swiatek was beginning to take hold. Just over half a year later, it's been quietly retired. Since Roland Garros, they have won one title above WTA 250 level between them. Marketa Vondrousova and Gauff swept up the last two majors of the year.
Rybakina perhaps has the most to prove. Like Sabalenka, she has not won a title since the clay season. In Rome, Rybakina became the only member of the trio to have won a trophy at WTA 1000 level or above on every surface. But since then, her results have sputtered out amid sundry illness and injury issues. Rybakina was dethroned by Ons Jabeur in the Wimbledon quarterfinals and is no longer a reigning Slam champion.
There have been intermittent reminders of Rybakina's quality, including tough wins against Daria Kasatkina in Montreal and Mirra Andreeva in Beijing, where she later knocked off Sabalenka in the quarterfinals.
Jessica Pegula: Can she raise her ceiling?
For the third year running, Pegula has put together a season characterized by a consistent, deep presence in almost every big tournament. Six quarterfinal-or-better finishes at WTA 1000 level or above this year takes her career total to 20, all since August of 2020.
But the flipside to Pegula's consistent high base level is that there also seems to be a consistent ceiling. Of those 20 quarterfinals, she's converted only two into titles. Famously, at Grand Slam level she is 0-6 at the quarterfinal stage. When she made her WTA Finals debut last year, she went 0-3 in the round robin.
During the North American swing, Pegula appeared poised to find another level, putting together her most impressive title run to date, in Montreal with wins against Gauff and Swiatek. But with a first-career Slam semifinal beckoning at the US Open, she crashed out to big-hitting compatriot Madison Keys in the fourth round.
Like Gauff, Pegula is unlikely to start losing her edge against lower-ranked players. But the WTA Finals is comprised of the players Pegula needs to beat in order to raise her ceiling. What will she be able to bring?
Marketa Vondrousova: What did the Wimbledon title mean?
In recent years, players have gone in all sorts of directions after winning their first major title. Some, such as Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Swiatek, have used it as a springboard to periods of dominance and the No.1 ranking. Others have been less consistent.
Vondrousova's path to her first Grand Slam crown was reminiscent of Sloane Stephens' trajectory. A deep Slam breakthrough as a teenager was followed by injury breaks and middling results that caused the initial hype to die down -- only for both to capture their first major crown unseeded and out of total leftfield.
Of course, it's still much too early to assess how Vondrousova will build on her SW19 title run. That's especially the case given that -- once again -- the dark clouds of injury have returned, limiting her to just one match since the US Open. But if healthy, her matchups against fellow Top 8 players will begin to provide some answers in this most compelling stage of her career.
Ons Jabeur: Can she gain a confidence boost for 2024?
For most of the Wimbledon fortnight, it seemed as though Jabeur's year would be defined by a run to her much-craved major title. She took down four Grand Slam champions en route to the final, and her wins over Bianca Andreescu, Rybakina and Sabalenka were among the very best performances anywhere this season.
Then it came crashing down in a nervy final against Vondrousova, where a devastated Jabeur was left in tears on Centre Court. Since then, she's showed plenty of heart as she seeks to rebound, but the easy, joyful fluency of her best level has been harder to locate.
The WTA Finals have been a site of inspiration for others in Jabeur's position. Should she look through the history of the tournament while in Cancun, she'd do well to pay specific attention to the 1997, 2005 and 2017 champions. Jana Novotna, Amélie Mauresmo and Caroline Wozniacki were all known for falling short in Grand Slams, a position Jabeur now finds herself in. But each of them used a title run at the WTA Finals as a confidence boost that took them to major glory the following year.
Maria Sakkari: Can she play freely with house money?
The player in the WTA Finals field who arguably has the least to prove is Sakkari. After all, her entry into the field is an unexpected bonus after finishing ninth in the Race, following Karolina Muchova's withdrawal.
Last month, Sakkari snapped a four-year title drought and a six-match losing streak in finals to win Guadalajara. The relief and joy she felt were evident in her celebration.
In recent years, Sakkari has often seemed to play with more tension deep into tournaments. But this time, she should be able to swing freely. There's no title drought hanging over her head, and she's back in the country where she ended it. Could Sakkari ride her Mexican love affair to another trophy?