NEW YORK, New York - The days of easing into a WTA tournament and playing yourself into form are over. The last seven Slams have crowned seven different champions, and if the US Open mints an eighth different champion at the end of the New York fortnight, it will be the first time in 80 years that two Slam seasons produced eight different champions.
Ask any player on the WTA these days and every single one of them touts the increased depth of the tour. On Day 1 of the US Open this week, World No.1 Simona Halep bowed out in the first round to No.44 Kaia Kanepi, big-hitting Estonian who verges on unplayable when she has her shots firing. The difference between Halep and Kanepi is not their quality as a player, but in their consistency. Halep can hit her peak week in and week out. Kanepi can't. Put them against each other on any given day and no result should surprise you.
"Before, I would say like 6-7 years ago, the top players had no opponents until the quarterfinals," said Dieter Kindlmann, former hitting partner to Maria Sharapova and current coach of No.15 Elise Mertens, who made her first Round of 16 at the US Open. "Everything was very easy. But now if you are not healthy or not 100% ready, every top player can lose in the first round. This makes the tennis world so interesting.
"Look at Victoria Azarenka. She is out of the Top 100. The young generation is coming. You really have to work hard and do the right stuff because everybody works. It's not anymore 20-30 players at the top highest level. I would say there are 60-100 really great players."
Michael Joyce, who coached Maria Sharapova earlier in her career and now works with Britain's Johanna Konta, agrees. "The depth is much deeper now. There's no comparison," Joyce said.
"I actually don't think the Top 10 are better than they were back then. I even argue sometimes that back then the Top 10 was maybe even better. You had Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport.
"But a girl ranked 40 or 50 wasn't anything like a girl 40 or 50 now."
"When I was with Maria, I used to look at the draw and say she'll play so and so in the quarters. Now the upsets happen.
"It's a good thing actually, but as a player you have to be able to realize that and be able to take some losses and when you have the opportunities you have to be prepared to do it. But I think everyone is working extremely hard and I think they have the money to do that, which they didn't have before."
The increase in prize money on the WTA over the last decade has helped bridge the gap between the sport's haves and have-nots. Player entourages are no longer confined to the game's Top 10. Lower-ranked players can now afford to build out their teams of specialists, hiring personal hitting partners, physios, and trainers to hone their bodies and their games.
"The players make more money, they have bigger teams, they take care of themselves better, they're better athletes," Joyce said. "You see a girl ranked No.40 or 50 and they're doing the same thing a top player is doing and the margins are very small. I think that's why you see a lot of the upsets."
The democratization of resources appears to have led to a shift in the type of tennis that wins on tour. The four reigning major champions - No.1 Simona Halep, No.2 Caroline Wozniacki, No.3 Sloane Stephens, and No.4 Angelique Kerber - all build their game around speed and counter-punching. In the face of the high-caliber athletes that now make up the WTA Top 100, a power game is far more difficult to execute consistently. The highest-ranked power player, No.5 Petra Kvitova, leads the tour in titles this season, but she failed to make it past the first week at a major this season.
"It is the age of counterpunchers because the depth in women's tennis is much greater now," said Nigel Sears, former coach of Ana Ivanovic and currently working with Anett Kontaveit. "Fifteen people can win the US Open. Without a joke, you could pick one of 15 that can win there's no outstandingly clear favorite.
"In the last eight slams there have been seven different winners. Kerber is the only one who's won multiple slams in the last eight. So they're definitely having their time and that's also because of the depth that's out there. Everyone has to be so fit, so strong. 70 percent of the tour is on hardcourt, and you have to be in really good shape to play on those courts week in week out.
"Every now and again one of the big strikers comes good, like Kvitova hits through them, or Karolina Pliskova, or Jelena Ostapenko. Serena, of course, is capable of doing that and you can never write her off.
"But there's a lot to be said about an aggressive counterpuncher."
Yet even in a season that has seen the aggressive counterpuncher rule, the US Open's first week has been dominated by power players. No.3 Sloane Stephens is the only aggressive counterpuncher left of the Top 10.
The consensus on the grounds is the courts are playing slower this year, giving the edge to players who can pound the ball through the court. Lesia Tsurenko, who stunned No.2 Caroline Wozniacki on Armstrong, compared the courts to Indian Wells, though played with heavier balls and conditions.
"The courts have been a little bit slower, I felt like," Sharapova said after her second-round win. "Maybe Armstrong is even a little slower than Ashe."
The conditions have set up an exciting fight to the finish in New York, with Serena and Pliskova set for a blockbuster quarterfinal clash, a rematch of their 2016 semifinal that saw Pliskova win in a stunning straight sets. Stephens will face the slicing and dicing Anastasia Sevastova, who took the American to a decisive tiebreak in the same stage last year.
The bottom half of the draw is anchored by an intriguing balance of veterans and youth, with the likes of Sharapova, Carla Suárez Navarro, and Dominika Cibulkova in the mix with three 20-and-unders, Naomi Osaka, Aryna Sabalenka, and Marketa Vondrousova. Last year's runner-up Madison Keys and Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko round out the Round of 16.
A version of this article originally appeared in the August 20th, 2018 edition of The Straits Times.