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Four Grand Slam winners, five storylines: The state of the WTA in 2023
From the state of play to the state of the tour's economics, what are the major takeaways from the major season?
Published Sep 11, 2023
WATCH: Reactions to Coco Gauff's US Open title | Tennis Channel Live
With the 2023 Grand Slam season in the books, Joel Drucker takes a closer look at the five major storylines that have defined the four quarters of the year so far.
Plenty of styles–but power still matters most
The Hologic WTA Tour these days features a wide range of playing styles. From the mix of spins and speeds employed by Ons Jabeur, Daria Kasatkina and Marketa Vondrousova; to the comfort Coco Gauff, Karolina Muchova, and Caroline Garcia show in all parts of the court; to the smothering groundstrokes of Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka; to the first-strike tennis played by Elena Rybakina and the crisp versatility of Jessica Pegula, the 2020s are a decade of engaging diversity.
Yet for all that eclecticism, as has always been the case in tennis, what matters most is the ability to repeatedly close out rallies with as much power and precision as possible.
Gauff showed plenty of that in her breakthrough US Open title run. But no one has proved that concept more clearly in 2023 than new world No. 1, Sabalenka. After a career often marked by streaky play, Sabalenka in 2023 has generated great results when it matters most–victory at the Australian Open, runner-up at the US Open, semifinal efforts at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Sabalenka’s run to the top this year has been highlighted by her ability to frequently show mastery of one of tennis’ best strategies: hit one ball after another hard into the corner. When a short one comes, drive it into the open space. Rinse and repeat.
Quality serving is critical
Anyone who calls the serve “simply a point starter” should be strung by a set of tightly-wound natural gut. Better yet? Think of the serve as akin to first down for a football team. Does it generate enough yardage to put the player in a reasonable position to commence the rally? Or does a poor delivery instantly rock the server on her heels? An excellent serve is particularly important these days on the WTA Tour. As a coach recently told me: “Weak second serves these days are being absolutely crushed.”
Over the last two years, for example, the serve has played a critical role in the Grand Slam runs of such active players as Sabalenka, Gauff, Vondrousova, Rybakina, and Muchova. Notably, Sabalenka’s improved serve has been the tipping point in her ascent. Swiatek also won a major this year, but that one came at Roland Garros, on the surface where she has more time to field incoming service returns. In the wake of frustrating losses this year at the majors, both Swiatek and Jabeur might well put time into improving their second serves.
The implication holds for players of all ages and stages: the serve has always been and will remain the most important shot in the game.
Players are now CEOs
It’s one thing to simply hire a coach and perhaps supplement that with a trainer. But now more than ever, players have staffs. Traveling and competing in such a collaborative environment, the player is much less a singular artisan-athlete and more of a CEO, responsible for carefully sorting out how those various experts work together–and who plays which role in leading the squad.
Is it the trainer, the physiotherapist, the tennis legend, the hitting partner, the psychologist, the agent? How does a player learn to manage all these service providers? When an injury or a slump happens, who’s the best person to listen to? That’s a lot of skill sets for a competitor to sort through. Let’s not forget the role of parents in this mix, too.
Mid-match coaching needs refinement
The way mid-match coaching currently occurs is frequently inane. Following a US Open match win, Madison Keys admitted she couldn’t hear her coach above the noise of the crowd. Sabalenka tossed a racquet up towards her box. Gauff politely told her coach to stop talking. Nearby fans hear every word. On field courts, coaches share space with spectators who’ll gladly chime in with their own opinions. I’m sure that’s something New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have enjoyed.
Oh, and all these interactions can only happen on one side of the court. Can you imagine that being the rule in the NFL or NBA? Sorry, Aaron Rodgers, you’re at the other end of the field, so we can’t share any intel with you on this critical play. If indeed mid-match coaching is to be part of tennis, please let’s make it completely professional, with the coach’s full name on his or her back, a thorough biographical portrait on the Internet, mandatory post-match press conferences (and even some prior), and a courtside bench akin to Billie Jean King Cup.
The tricky life of the WTA: Money and meaning
Fifty years into its journey, the WTA continues to delicately navigate business objectives and economic realities with social issues and cultural significance. This has been the case from the beginning of women’s pro tennis when, back in 1970, the newly formed tour joined forces with cigarette brand Virginia Slims and concurrently made a powerful statement on behalf of equality.
Decades later, it remains complicated for the tour’s leadership team–executives, players, tournament directors, sponsors and, more notably, potential sponsors–to grapple with such matters as the WTA’s return to China this fall and its consideration of Saudi Arabia. Former players such as Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert have expressed their opposition to the tour playing events in Saudi Arabia.
I’m curious what active players think.