From the land down under to the sandy shores of Cancun, the 2023 tennis season has taken us on a memorable journey. Now that the year has finally concluded, it's time to relive the top moments:
What storyline resonated with you the most?
Alex Macpherson: Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on how Elina Svitolina's comeback from maternity leave has been underpinned by her efforts to raise money for her war-torn home country. The bigger picture is of WTA players using their platforms to engage with what's happening in the world outside the bubble of professional tennis. Along with Svitolina, Iga Swiatek has continued to be a high-profile voice for Ukraine. Last week, a passionate Ons Jabeur drew attention to the current plight of Palestine. At the US Open, Coco Gauff spoke out in support of the climate change protestors who had disrupted her own match. And then there's the bravery of Daria Kasatkina, whose existence as a queer woman and antiwar stance have effectively exiled her from her home country.
Jason Juzwiak: All year, I had been interested in seeing how Jessica Pegula would handle her significant rise into the elite, from No.62 in 2020 to No.18 in 2021 to No.3 in 2022. Those are two striking changes from year to year over the past two seasons. And not only did she calmly handle her ascent into rarefied air, she arguably posted her best season yet. With her level-headed demeanor, Pegula rarely wavered under the pressure of defending points week after week, and she never fell out of the Top 5. Then with another Top 10 finish all but assured, Pegula pulled out all the stops and played better than ever. She won Montreal, her second WTA 1000 title, claimed an emotional victory in Seoul and registered three Top 3 wins to reach the championship match at the WTA Finals.
Courtney Nguyen: The biggest question for me was who would prevail between Swiatek and the pack. Ultimately, this wasn’t answered until the final match of the year. Swiatek’s 2022 results forced the field to get better. As she wrote on Twitter, their relentless drive to chase her down this year did the same. Swiatek is right: She’ll likely never replicate the feats of her 2022 campaign, not just in the 37-match win streak but also the sheer point differential she put between herself and the rest of the tour. But I would argue her ability to finish this year at No.1 had a higher degree of difficulty. Aryna Sabalenka has elevated her game, while Elena Rybakina and Pegula bested Swiatek multiple times this season. Swiatek also had to juggle multiple injuries that could have impacted her season more than they did. Through it all, she finished the year with one more win than last year. That’s just absurd.
Greg Garber: For me, it was Vera Zvonareva. Looking over the doubles field in Cancun, at the age of 39, she jumped out. Here was a former World No.2 in singles, enjoying her best doubles season in 17 years. Imagine that. I sat down with her and Laura Siegemund before the WTA Finals began and listened to the saga of their partnership. The twists and turns were fascinating. They first played together at the 2020 US Open -- and won the title. In recent years, their health has kept them from pairing up on the court, but in the past four months they won four titles and reached the final at the US Open. Cancun was the biggest; the No.6 seeds defeated No.8 Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez 6-4, 6-4 in the final. And yes, at 40, Zvonareva will come back with Siegemund in 2024.
What was the most unexpected twist on court this season?
Juzwiak: Longtime doubles partners and friends Hsieh Su-wei and Barbora Strycova had both been off tour for a long while before they returned this April. Strycova gave birth to her son, Vincent, in 2021 and had been away from the game for over two years. Hsieh had not played any events in 2022. But within mere weeks, it was like the duo had never left. Less than two months after returning, Hsieh won Roland Garros alongside Wang Xinyu. A month later, Hsieh re-teamed with Strycova to win their second Wimbledon title as a team, a result that stunned Strycova in one of her final events before she retired for good at the end of this year. "It's crazy," Strycova said after winning the championship. "Actually, I don't believe it still, but it's real, right?” In this wildly unpredictable doubles season, Hsieh, following her 16-month hiatus, is the only player to have won two Grand Slam women’s doubles titles this year.
Nguyen: Elina Svitolina’s runs through Roland Garros and Wimbledon. We knew Svitolina’s prematernity level of play as a competitor who could chase down any ball and outscrap the best. So the twist was not that the Ukrainian returned to her winning ways -- it was how she did it. The 29-year-old came back with a completely revamped game, playing with an offensive intention that mowed through the field at Wimbledon. Her 7-5, 6-7(5), 6-2 win against Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals was a stunner.
Garber: In my mind, it had to be Marketa Vondrousova winning at Wimbledon. Coming off an injury that kept her out for six months, she began the season ranked No.92. Heading into Wimbledon she was No.42 -- and then she ran the table, defeating Jessica Pegula in the quarterfinals and Svitolina in the semifinals. And just when it looked like Ons Jabeur would capture her first major, it was the crafty Czech Republic player who managed it in straight sets. Vondrousova finished the year 40-17 -- and Wimbledon was her only title.
Macpherson: Jelena Ostapenko is a streakier player than most. Arguably, her wildest turnaround was a 7-6(2), 6-0 defeat of Barbora Krejcikova in the second round of Rome. It wasn't just that she came from 5-1 down to win 12 of 13 games. That scoreline also contained a streak of 16 straight points against her, immediately followed by Ostapenko winning 20 of the next 27 on her way to forcing a tiebreak. As if that wasn't enough, Ostapenko also went on a run in which she took 28 out of 31 points (from the tiebreak to the final game) and ultimately won 32 out of the last 38 points of the match. Whiplash doesn't do it justice.
Which lesser-known player made the biggest splash?
Nguyen: I was consistently impressed by Peyton Stearns. In her first full season as a professional, the 22-year-old Texas Longhorn started the year outside the Top 200 and was in the Top 100 by mid-April after making her first WTA final in Bogota. On the way to her first third round at a Slam, Stearns’ heavy forehand picked Jelena Ostapenko apart at Roland Garros. She went one round better at the US Open before losing in three sets to Marketa Vondrousova. There’s a lot to like in Stearns’ powerful game.
Garber: It’s always fun to follow the progress of young players as they navigate the professional tennis ladder. Mirra Andreeva, 16, finished at No.46 while compiling a 36-9 record. We first began to recognize her in Madrid, where she accomplished a host of feats. Andreeva won her first three matches before falling to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka. Andreeva would go on to win multiple matches at both the French Open and Wimbledon.
Macpherson: Rewind to the first week of the year. Linda Noskova had been tipped as one to watch, but few would have foreseen her wild run to the final of Adelaide 1. In just her fifth tour-level main-draw event, the 18-year-old Czech took down two Top 10 players and one Grand Slam champion -- Daria Kasatkina in the first round, Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals and Ons Jabeur in the semifinals -- all in tight three-setters. Indeed, Noskova saved match point en route to two separate victories. Noskova was stopped by Sabalenka in the title match but went on to a solid rookie year that saw her reach another final, on home soil in Prague, and hit a career-high of No.40 in October.
Juzwiak: Keep an eye on China's Zhu Lin, who registered a number of career-best showings this year at the age of 29, particularly on hard courts. Zhu beat Maria Sakkari at the Australian Open to notch her first Top 10 win and reach her first Grand Slam Round of 16, then won her first WTA singles title in Hua Hin the next week. All told, Zhu won 10 of her first 13 matches this season. When the tour returned to hard courts in the second half of the year, Zhu got hot again. At the US Open, Zhu avenged her Australian Open loss to Azarenka, and she reached another final in Osaka. Zhu ended the year by winning her round-robin group at the WTA Elite Trophy as a wild card. Zhu started the year No.84 and ended it No.36, and if she can become an all-surface threat in 2024, she could go substantially higher.
What record or historic achievements was most worth remembering?
Garber: Watching Iga Swiatek rip through the field in Cancun was a satisfying experience. She finished the year in a blur, winning the title in Beijing then producing a historic run at the WTA Finals. She dropped 20 games in five matches (do that math) at the Finals, crushing the previous standard (32) by Serena Williams in 2012. And losing only a single game in the final against Jessica Pegula? That, too, was a record -- bettering the mark of Martina Navratilova and Kim Clijsters. Swiatek became the No.1 player in March 2022 when Ashleigh Barty abruptly retired. She carried it for 75 weeks before the wear and tear (and Aryna Sabalenka) caught up with her. In Cancun, Swiatek seized the top ranking with a world-class effort.
Macpherson: I'll pick two -- one at the top end and the other more under the radar. This season featured 12 matches between reigning Grand Slam champions, the most in one calendar year since 2012 (13). The rivalries between Swiatek, Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Coco Gauff and Vondrousova are beginning to look era-defining.
Meanwhile, before 2023 only three lucky losers had ever won a WTA tournament. Within six weeks, over July and August, that number doubled. Maria Timofeeva captured Budapest, as a 19-year-old making her main-draw debut no less. She was followed by Nao Hibino in Prague and Sara Sorribes Tormo in Cleveland.
Juzwiak: I'll highlight Gauff, who leveled up in the North American summer hard-court season, where she went 18-1 in four events. As she noted in her US Open winner’s speech, she checked off milestones in order -- a first WTA 500 title in Washington D.C., then her first WTA 1000 title in Cincinnati and finally her first Grand Slam title in New York City. With that US Open title, Gauff joined an elite list. She became only the fourth American woman to win a Grand Slam as a teenager in the Open Era. The others: Chris Evert, Tracy Austin and Serena Williams, all of whom eventually reached No.1 in the world.
Nguyen: I think Pegula would agree that at 29 years old -- and in the prime of her singles career -- she has no business playing 136 matches this year (that’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles combined across all levels). But it’s a stat that sticks with me, one that plainly illustrates Pegula’s character, work ethic and love of competition. Oh, and also her quality. You can’t put yourself in position to play that many matches unless you’re winning, and she won 102 of them.