Fresh off 18 holes on a lush California golf course, Pam Shriver enthusiastically throws herself into the future.
She’s a keen student of Hologic WTA Tour history, maybe because she had such a huge hand in it. And the past often informs us about what follows.
Shriver is famous for winning 21 major doubles crowns with Martina Navratilova (including the rare Grand Slam in 1984), but there were also 21 singles titles and an Olympic gold medal with Zina Garrison -- and a dizzying total of 133 titles.
Shriver’s got a lot on her plate these days. In addition to the occasional round of golf, she’s coaching Top 25 player Donna Vekic, while serving as an analyst for Tennis Channel and ESPN and chasing after her three teenagers, George, Kate and Sam.
Nevertheless, she found a few minutes to air out some thought-provoking forecasts on the approaching season.
Will Iga Swiatek pull off the (rare) three-peat?
Since the birth of the modern ranking system in 1975, five women have been year-end No.1 for at least three consecutive years. Chris Evert (1975-77) did it right out of the box, followed by Navratilova (1982-86), Stefanie Graf (1987-90), Serena Williams (2013-15) and Ashleigh Barty (2019-21).
They are all certified legends of the game and Swiatek can join them with another No.1 season. It came down to the last match in Cancun, but the 22-year-old from Poland defeated Jessica Pegula in the final to regain the top spot she lost after departing in the fourth round of the US Open.
In the coming year, in terms of arithmetic, it might be a little easier. Swiatek is defending only one major title instead of two, and her closest pursuers, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff, each defend those 2,000 points as well.
Shriver’s take: “If I had to bet on somebody to be No.1 at the end of next year, I’d bet on Iga. Why? She’s just the most consistent. She knows what it takes to get it done across the 11-month calendar. Iga has a great team around her, and she knows when she needs to not play. Plus, she’s really disciplined. At 22, you know she’s going to add some subtle things to her game. And don’t forget that the first time she reached No.1 it was because Barty retired. This time, Iga went and grabbed it back. In terms of grit and intensity, I like what I saw there.”
Do you expect Sabalenka to continue her growth at the same rate she did in 2023?
In her first five years in the majors, Sabalenka never got past the fourth round and her volatile personality sometimes held her back on the court. But since Wimbledon 2021, she has been to the semifinals at least in seven of the nine Grand Slams in which she’s played.
No one else has come close.
In some ways, the race for No.1 with Swiatek obscured Sabalenka’s continuing growth, as she reached two Grand Slam semifinals and two finals, winning her first major at the Australian Open. To put that in perspective, those four spots in final fours in 2023 compared to a total of seven for the other nine players in the Top 10. Karolina Muchova (Roland Garros, US Open) was the only other player with more than one.
Shriver’s take: “Sabalenka came such a long way this year. She was solid as a rock in the big tournaments. I like the way she carried herself, based on the resiliency she’s shown the last couple of years and the confidence she gained from winning in Australia. For me, beating Iga in the Madrid final -- in three sets -- was another big milestone. She seems to check off all the boxes as far as the leave-no-stone-unturned category, which is a really important category when you’re talking about the top two, three in the world.
“She seems to be built for the endurance part of this … she’s strong and she trains well. Her team has been through a lot with her and I feel there’s a lot of stability there. I think she has a pretty good chance at three of the four majors -- the only one I wouldn’t say is Iga’s best one, Roland Garros. But I think she can win Wimbledon and the two hard courts. I’d say it’s a very good chance she wins at least one."
How is Gauff’s mental approach helping her to succeed?
At the All England Club, where Gauff first announced herself in 2019, she fell four years later in the first round to Sofia Kenin. And then, after the addition of coach Brad Gilbert, the 19-year-old went on a tear, winning increasingly big tournaments in Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and New York.
Shriver’s take: “I was concerned about Coco, and then just look how she finished out the summer. I feel like the voice of BG helped her enormously. That was probably the most important thing. Does he alter her forehand grip? I don’t think he’s going to mess with it too much. He’s preaching positive thoughts and good habits. I would add that there have been a lot of great tennis champions who didn’t have a devastating forehand -- Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Stefan Edberg, for example. And there were some times where Venus Williams’ forehand sometimes broke down under attack.
“The point is, when you have all the tools that Coco has on the tennis court -- the backhand, the movement, the ability to go forward -- you don’t need the best forehand in the game to win many, many majors and get to No.1. I think she’s going to go into 2024 feeling a heck of a lot more confident, comfortable and secure.”
Are great things in store for Osaka?
After 15 months away from the game, the four-time major champion returns to action in Brisbane this January.
Shriver’s take: “It’s fascinating. I think Osaka’s got to be very inspired by some very successful maternity ladies before her, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Tatjana Maria, Elina Svitolina. This one has more intrigue because of [the mental duress discussions] that led up to the maternity leave. I think she comes back strong, with the perspective that you’ve got great things to look forward to at home. I’m looking forward to seeing her in Australia.”