If women’s tennis seemed a little more open to suggestion this season it wasn’t your imagination. Aryna Sabalenka, Marketa Vondrousova and Coco Gauff all broke through with their first Grand Slam singles titles.
In retrospect, it was a relatively rare course of events -- although the Hologic WTA Tour has increasingly become a more diverse, inclusive venue for major champions.
This was only the fourth time this century that three first-time Grand Slam winners emerged in a single season (an average of once every six years) and it’s worth examining the three other times it happened:
- 2004: Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova.
- 2011: Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur.
- 2018: Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka.
Interestingly, two winners in each of those years went on to win multiple Slams.
Back in the day, it never happened. There were only three first-time major winners in the entire 1980s -- most notably, Steffi Graf. The 1990s produced a total of nine, including Serena Williams, but never more than two in a single year.
We bring this up because history suggests 2024 will revert back to the norm, that the coming season will produce fewer than three first-timers. In fact, Martina Navratilova is boldly predicting there will be just one.
Navratilova won the first of her 18 major singles titles in 1978 at Wimbledon and, in a spirited conversation with WTAtennis.com, offered an array of arresting prognostications as she contemplates the fast-approaching 2024 campaign.
Ons Jabeur will win her first Slam
The universally beloved 29-year from Tunisia faced Vondrousova -- the first unseeded finalist at Wimbledon since Billie Jean King six decades before her -- and, after racing out to a 4-2 lead, lost in straight sets. It was her second consecutive loss in the Wimbledon final and third in a major final. Jabeur can take solace from the trajectory of Kim Clijsters, who lost her first four major finals -- and won the next four.
Navratilova’s take: “I’m going through the rankings right now, and it’s got to be Ons. Because of the variety and everything else in her game, she’s the obvious choice. Wimbledon was a heartbreaking loss, but you know what they say: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. My money’s on Ons, always a threat on any surface, to break through.”
Naomi Osaka will be ‘in the mix’ by Indian Wells
After a 15-month sabbatical -- and only six months after giving birth to daughter Shai -- Osaka is scheduled to return to tennis in January at the Brisbane International. The four-time major champion is poised for a “brilliant comeback” with an eye toward a full season of competition.
Navratilova’s take: “I’m really looking forward to seeing how this all unfolds. After the layoff, it’s going to take her time to get her match legs underneath her, the confidence flowing again. I just hope that she takes it slower, rather than too fast. I’m thinking by Indian Wells, early March, she’ll be back in the mix, back to being her amazing self. She won the title there in 2018. It would be great for the sport to see her back at the top.”
Another year-end No.1 for Swiatek
Swiatek lost the No.1 ranking after the US Open, but regained it when she won the China Open in Beijing and the WTA Finals in Cancun to finish the year on an 11-match win streak. She won all 10 sets in Mexico -- dropping only six games in semifinal and final victories over Sabalenka and Gauff.
Navratilova’s take: “That was Iga showing that, at her best, she is better than anybody. I mean, in difficult conditions, she just blew right through everybody. She gets into the points better and knows how to close the deal. I’ll be honest … a few weeks ago, based on what I was seeing, I didn’t think she’d finish 2024 at No.1 next year -- I was picking Gauff. Now I think maybe Gauff will pass Sabalenka for No.2. But I don’t know if either one of them can get past Iga if she has a good offseason, stays healthy, stays fresh.”
Gauff will win Wimbledon
More than four years ago, she qualified for the main draw at the All England Club, then defeated Venus Williams in a torch-passing moment in the first round. Gauff would lose to eventual champion Simona Halep in the fourth round -- but, truth be told -- she was only 15 years old.
Navratilova’s take: “I would be surprised if she doesn’t win another major this year, and Wimbledon makes the most sense. I think it’s on grass because she’s better at the net than any of them and moves forward so well. That and her improved drop shot. I think you’ll see that across the board next year, the [Carlos] Alcaraz influence on the sport. For me, Coco should be the favorite on grass. Particularly since by her own admission, it’s Iga’s most challenging surface.”
Zheng Qinwen will continue to amaze
After Gauff, she is the youngest player in the WTA Tour’s Top 40. Zheng, who turned 21 in October, showed vast improvement under coach Wim Fissette and, even after their sudden split, continued on her upward trajectory. She won her first WTA title in Palermo, made her first major quarterfinal at the US Open, and then tore through the Asian swing, taking gold at the Asian Games, winning Zhengzhou, and finishing runner-up at the WTA Elite Trophy. Her ranking has gone from No.143 at the end of 2021, to No.25 to the present No.15.
Navratilova’s take: “She is a big, big talent. And I think she’ll be more than motivated by the surprising departure of Fissette, who’s going back to coaching Naomi Osaka. Yeah, she’s a woman on a mission and she’s certainly the athlete to get it done. Depending on what her next coach does, how much she buys into it, she’s a player to be reckoned with in the future.”
Mirra Andreeva, next teen phenom
Six teenagers finished in the WTA Tour’s Top 100 and, at 16, Andreeva is easily the youngest. Andreeva made a splash in Madrid, scoring her first WTA main-draw win in the first round against Leylah Fernandez and followed it up with wins over Beatriz Haddad Maia and Magda Linette before falling to Sabalenka. Andreeva finished the year at No.46.
Navratilova’s take: “I’ve seen her play and I like what I see. She’s a force -- and she wants it, wants it bad. Andreeva is fierce and fiery and all in.”