Why 2023 is becoming an excellent year for women’s tennis
ONE OF THE most notable matches in womens tennis in recent years came in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January. It pitted Elena Rybakina (pictured left), a Kazakh who is the reigning Wimbledon champion, against Iga Swiatek (pictured right), a Pole who holds both the French and US Open titles. Those four tournaments are tenniss Grand Slams, the biggest prizes in the sport. The match was the first time that two reigning female Grand Slam champions had met at a major event since 2016. There have been three such matches between men since the start of 2021. This statistic illustrates the difficulties that womens tennis has endured of late. The mens game has benefited from the long rivalries between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Their many tussles brought new fans to the game and ensured plentiful media coverage. The womens game has been much more open. Since Serena Williams won her 23rd and final Grand Slam title in 2017, 15 women have won a major, but only three have won more than two. Of these, Naomi Osaka is on maternity leave until 2024 and Ash Barty has retired. The other is Ms Swiatek, who is likely to be the top seed at Wimbledon next month. Ms Williams, the greatest player of her generation, retired last year, just before turning 41. So did Ms Barty, who was just 25 and top of the world rankings. In addition to losing players capable of winning the biggest prizes consistently, womens tennis has faced other troubles. In November 2021 the Womens Tennis Association (WTA) lost touch with one of its members, Peng Shuai, after she accused a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault. After the Chinese government ignored its request to investigate the allegations, the WTA cancelled its events in China indefinitely. Although pandemic-era restrictions meant that many of these tournaments were already in doubt, this was not mere posturing. The WTA had been courting China for years, to the extent that Chinese events accounted for around one-third of its revenues in 2019. The WTA was forced to find other hosts, and prize money slipped further behind that offered to male players. The WTA was also put in a difficult position by Russias invasion of Ukraine three months later. It opted against banning Russian and Belarusian players, who in April 2022 occupied 12 of the top 100 spots in the world rankings. But Ms Swiatek for one decried a lack of leadership in the association. Lesia Tsurenko, one of the few Ukrainians on the tour, pulled out of an event. So far 2023 has been better. In March the WTA announced that it had received $150m for a 20% stake in WTA Ventures, a new commercial arm, which it sold to CVC Capital Partners, a private-equity firm. The WTA believes that CVCs experience in sports investments will help it to increase the value of its sponsorship and media rights and thus offer more prize money. Although the Grand Slam events offer equal rewards for men and women, other tournaments do not. The mens competitions have found it easier to attract big-name sponsors. For example, the season-ending ATP Finals in 2022 had a total prize pot of $15m, compared with just $5m for the equivalent WTA event. In April the WTA said that it was ending its Chinese boycott. With no indication that the Chinese government would pursue the requested inquiry, continuing the policy became seen as pointless. (A majority of players are reported to have been in favour of the return.) Whether the WTAs decision is seen as surrender or sporting realpolitik, its effect on the coffers is undeniable. Several tournaments are due to take place in China later this year. For fans, the most obvious source of optimism comes from the court. The five Grand Slams since Ms Bartys retirement have been won by Ms Swiatek, Ms Rybakina or Aryna Sabalenka, a Belarusian. A lasting rivalry is in the offing. Though the youngest at 22, Ms Swiatek is the leader of this pack, having won three of the past four French Opens as well as last years US Open. An extraordinary 37-match winning streak in 2022 showed her ability to dominate the tour. However, Ms Rybakina may have her number, having won three of their four matches. She has forced Ms Swiatek back with her huge serve and powerful groundstrokes. Ms Sabalenka, who defeated Ms Rybakina in the final of the Australian Open and has won most of their contests, is also a baseliner. She plays in an unusually risky manner, firing off aces and winners, as well as unforced errors and double-faults, at above-average rates. She will probably have to reduce her errors if she is to win as many slams as her rivals, but she can hit anyone off the court. Fittingly, bookmakers have roughly the same odds for all three women to win Wimbledon. Some high-quality tussles between them would cement the sense that after a tricky period, womens tennis is on the rise.