It’s got to be close.
Iga Swiatek might be an easy No. 1 with a 4,365-point lead over new world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, but what then?
Is Australian Open champion Sabalenka definitely the No. 2 right now? And is Ons Jabeur a firm No. 3 after her second-round exit in Melbourne? And Australian Open runner-up Rybakina down at No. 10…?
As the WTA Tour gears up for a big month of action in the Middle East, we try to make sense of the current women’s tennis landscape and who’s in the running to win titles.
Swiatek – still the one to beat, but…
Swiatek’s month in Australia did not go as many expected it to.
The two most notable results of her time Down Under were a straight-sets defeat to Jessica Pegula at the United Cup and a thrashing by Rybakina in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
This was not the same Swiatek that dominated in the 2022 season, and she gave a frank assessment of her performances after losing to Rybakina.
“I felt like I took a step back in terms of how I approach these tournaments, and I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard. So I’m going to try to chill out a little bit more. That’s all. For sure past two weeks have been pretty hard for me.”
“I felt today that I don’t have that much to take from myself to fight even more. I felt the pressure, and I felt that I don’t want to lose instead of I want to win. So that’s a base of what I should focus on in the next couple of weeks.”
After she swept aside everyone in 2022 it wasn’t unreasonable to label Swiatek the strong favourite to win the Australian Open. But in hindsight should more have been read into her WTA Finals semi-final defeat to Aryna Sabalenka and her loss to Pegula? Have opponents figured out better ways to counter and hurt Swiatek? Will players with power games like Sabalenka and Rybakina continue to cause Swiatek problems?
The next few months will be fascinating for the world No. 1.
It was on February 22, 2022 that Swiatek started her 37-match winning streak, which means she soon has a ton of points to defend. She is back in action in Doha, where she will be defending champion, on February 13, and then it’s onto Dubai for the first WTA 1000 of the season, where Swiatek actually has the opportunity to gain some points after losing in the last 16 in 2022.
“I think it’s going to be motivating for me,” said Swiatek after her Australian Open exit. “And I’m pretty sure that I’m going to play next tournaments with something to focus on, something to work on, and I think I’m going to go forward.”
Sabalenka leads the challengers
The gap between Swiatek and the rest still looks large, but it’s closing.
The points margin has narrowed a bit – down to 4,365 from around 6,000 at the end of last season – and there are some in-form players who look to have the game to threaten Swiatek.
Sabalenka is top of that list after her Australian Open victory.
The new world No. 2 has ferocious power and if she can show the same composure as she did in Melbourne then she should be competing for more big titles.
“I really want it again,” said Sabalenka after her major breakthrough. “It really motivates me a lot. I want even more and I want to become a better player. I know that there is still a lot of things to work on to be better on court.”
If Sabalenka looks the biggest rival to Swiatek right now, who’s next in line?
‘This is a great thing for women’s tennis’ – McEnroe on Sabalenka win
It’s difficult to gauge whether Jabeur is as much of a threat after her second-round Australian Open exit. She has shown in the past she has the ability to quickly rebound from tough losses but it was concerning to hear her say she had a “difficult time breathing” after losing to Marketa Vondrousova. It’s not clear when Jabeur, who made two Grand Slam finals last year, will return as she has withdrawn from this week’s Abu Dhabi Open.
World No. 4 Pegula has to be in the conversation. She was playing very well at the United Cup, where she convincingly beat Swiatek, and even though she didn’t find her best level against Victoria Azarenka in the Australian Open quarter-finals she should still be set for a big season.
Rybakina appears to be in the same orbit as Pegula after moving up into the top 10 with her run to the Australian Open final. If she had her ranking points from winning Wimbledon last year she would be at No. 5 in the world, which would seem fair given how much of a threat she is shaping up to be with her huge serve and attacking style.
Eurosport expert John McEnroe said after the Australian Open that he expects Rybakina and Sabalenka to be “real challengers” for Swiatek.
‘I still feel like I’m on another planet’ – Sabalenka shows off Aus Open trophy
“They’ll obviously both have a lot of confidence for the rest of the season,” he said. “As far as their tennis abilities, yes they can be a threat to Swiatek.”
The rest of the top 10 appears more unpredictable – none more so surely than world No. 8 Daria Kasatkina, who has lost in the first round of the last two Grand Slams. World No. 5 Caroline Garcia, who made the Lyon Open final last week, still looks one to watch and world No. 9 Belinda Bencic will be hoping to build on a strong showing in Australia.
Gauff and the younger generation
If there appears to be a leading group at the top of the WTA Tour ready to challenge for Grand Slam titles, it’s very closely followed by a far larger group where any number of players could break through.
World No.6 Coco Gauff didn’t have a deep run at the Australian Open but it would not be a huge surprise to see her contend at a Grand Slam this year. Maria Sakkari also wasn’t at her best in Melbourne but has shown some positive signs with her play over the last few months.
‘Coco’s progress has been excellent’ – McEnroe on Gauff and Raducanu
Two former Grand Slam champions are also worth tracking.
Bianca Andreescu is another former US Open champion looking to return to her best level.
Andreescu looked good in making the Thailand Open semi-finals last week before retiring with injury. Her opponent, Lesia Tsurenko, said after the semi-final that the Canadian is a player to watch.
“I think Bianca is just an amazing player,” added Tsurenko. “I told her that after the match. I think, the way she’s playing tennis, is must-see on tour because she’s capable of doing all kinds of shots.”
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