From the outdoor clay courts of Palermo in the peak summer early August, to the indoor hard courts of Linz in the late autumn last week, the re-launched 2020 WTA season, which took place after a near five-month lockdown period, was not without tantalising storylines and remarkable feats.
The return of Victoria Azarenka to a Grand Slam final, the arrival of the first 21st-century-born Grand Slam champion in Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka becoming the first player born in the 1990s to win three Grand Slam singles titles, and both Simona Halep and Aryna Sabalenka tying each other for most title wins this year, the 2020 tour restart, albeit short and brief, is no doubt a memorable one.
Palermo & Prague: European summer clay court swing begins restart
The first week of August 2020 marked the lifting of the 2020 tour suspension which had kicked in almost five months before, in March. The last events played were the Lyon and Monterrey events, each of them saw top-10-ers in Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina winning the title, respectively.
Located on the island of Sicily, and serving as the capital of the region of the same name, Palermo, Italy, would be the opening act of the resumption of the 2020 season. This year’s edition of the Palermo Ladies Open boasted a strong field, with all eight seeds ranked top 30. There were four Italian players in the mix too and they did not disappoint, with three of them, Elisabetta Cocciaretto, Sara Errani and Camila Giorgi, making at least the quarterfinals.
France’s Fiona Ferro walked away with the title this year, the Frenchwoman demonstrating a strong performance all week, taking down opponents in qualifier Nadia Podoroska (future French Open semifinalist) and eighth seed Ekaterina Alexandrova to reach the last eight.
There, she saw off former French Open finalist and wildcard Errani before dropping her first set of the week against a second successive Italian in Giorgi in the last four. In the final, Ferro faced less issues as she beat fourth seed Anett Kontaveit for her second career singles title, after winning Lausanne, also on clay, last summer.
Trivia: With Giorgi, Errani and Cocciaretto making the quarterfinals at Palermo this year, it marked the first time since Hobart in 2015 where three Italians made this stage of a tournament. Giorgi, alongside Roberta Vinci and Karin Knapp were the quarterfinalists in the Tasmanian capital then.
The week after, the tour travelled to two cities, the Czech capital, Prague, and, across the Atlantic, Lexington, second-largest city of Kentucky state, in the United States. The Prague Open was rescheduled (also, rebranded) from its usual slot in late April due to the suspension.
Top seed Simona Halep lived up to her seeding as she sauntered her way to the final but it was not always plain sailing for the Romanian as she was taken to a decider in her first two matches where she beat Polona Hercog and local wildcard Barbora Krejcikova.
After demolishing lucky loser Magdalena Frech with the loss of just two games, Halep maintained her spotless record over compatriot Irina-Camelia Begu to reach the final. There, she met third seed Elise Mertens, in a rematch of their Doha final last year which Mertens had won.
Halep turned her fortunes this time around, securing a win over the Belgian in straight sets for her second title of 2020, joining Kenin to become the first two players to win multiple tournaments this season, the American having won the Australian Open back in January prior to Lyon.
Trivia: This year’s Prague Open marked the first time since the tournament was added to the calendar back in 2015 where not a single Czech made the final, the best showing by the home players being semifinalist Kristyna Pliskova, who was runner-up to Mona Barthel here in 2017. This year’s final is also a first for the tournament that did not go the distance. Halep’s title run here is also the first for the former world number one at an International clay court tournament since triumphing on home soil, Bucharest four years ago.
Lexington & New York City: Tour shifts focus to American hardcourts
Held the same week as Prague, the inaugural Top Seed Open, began proceedings on American hardcourts in the lead-up to the second Grand Slam of the year, the US Open. The event, an American-based event to complement the Prague Open, was created to accommodate players who could not travel to Europe, providing additional opportunities to compete.
Serena Williams headlined the tournament, which saw a total of 15 other Americans featured. Victoria Azarenka, Serena and older sister Venus found themselves pitted in the top-most eighth of the draw. There, Venus saw off Azarenka with the loss of five games while Serena beat compatriot Bernarda Pera, the sisters setting up their 31st clash overall. Serena prevailed in a three-set encounter this time, coming back from a set down to move ahead 19-12 in their head-to-head.
The last-eight line-up in Lexington was an interesting one as five Americans made it this far with eighth seed Ons Jabeur, Jil Teichmann and Marie Bouzkova rounding up the slate of quarterfinalists. There, facing her third American opponent in a row, Serena was stunned by the dangerous Shelby Rogers, who would go on to make the quarterfinals of the US Open later.
Another American, however, has been quietly navigating her way through the draw, Jennifer Brady. Sixth seed Magda Linette was her most prolific victim en route to the last four and there, she saw off Coco Gauff, who had beaten second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka and Jabeur en route, to reach the final. There, she met Teichmann, who shattered hopes of an all-American final when she beat Rogers in the other semifinal. Brady capped off her dominant week in Kentucky as she beat the Swiss in straight sets to lift the title.
Trivia: The 116th-ranked Rogers’ win over Serena handed the older American her first defeat to a player outside the top 100 for the first time since Virginie Razzano (ranked 111th)’s famous upset win over the former world number in the first round of the 2012 French Open. By winning the title, Brady did not just do it without dropping a single set (and not more than four games lost per set), but she also cracked the top-40 rankings for the first time in her career by virtue of that result.
The second Premier-5 event of the year, the Western & Southern Open, was up next, after the tour took a week off. This tournament, held at the US Open’s venue in New York City this year to accommodate the revamped calendar, saw the return of many big names to the stage, six of the top-eight seeds here being former Grand Slam finalists. However, just two of them, fourth seed Naomi Osaka and eighth seed Johanna Konta, made it past the last 16.
Other quarterfinalists of the tournament this year include former champion Azarenka, Jabeur, Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari and Mertens, the latter three seeded 12th, 13th and 14th, respectively. The surprise package of the tournament came in American qualifier Jessica Pegula as she completes the quarterfinal roster. Sakkari and Pegula had notably beaten Serena Williams and Sabalenka, respectively, in the previous round.
The semifinal line-up featured Osaka up against Mertens, and Azarenka pitted against Konta. Azarenka grinded past Konta from a set down to make her biggest final since returning to tour from pregnancy three years ago, and faced Osaka for the title. The final never took place, however, as Osaka withdrew with a hamstring issue, conceding a walkover, and the title, to Azarenka as a result. It was the first title of the Belarussian veteran’s career since becoming a mother, and her second at the tournament after 2013.
Trivia: Azarenka’s second Western & Southern Open title victory would be the Belarussian’s fourth consecutive Premier Mandatory/Premier 5 title on American hardcourts, dating back to her first triumph at this same tournament in 2013. It is also the milestone 10th title at this level of tournaments for Azarenka, and all 10 of them coming on hardcourts, seven of them on American soil.
After hosting the Western & Southern Open, it was then business as usual once more for the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center, with the commencement of the US Open. Normally the closing Grand Slam event of a season, the restructured calendar saw the tournament moved up as the second one for this year. This year’s edition took place in a ‘bubble’, and the absence of the mixed doubles event.
2018 champion Osaka sealed herself the third Grand Slam crown of her young career, for the third year in a row, and her third on hardcourts also when she saw off Azarenka, in a rematch of their Western & Southern final two weeks back, in the championship round, coming back from a first-set breadstick to steady the ship to victory.
The Japanese player’s route to the second week at the Big Apple Slam this year began with a slight glitch in the first round where she was forced to a decider by compatriot Misaki Doi. After a second-round demolition of Giorgi where she dropped just three games, fourth-seeded Osaka pulled off another three-set escape, this time against Ukrainian youngster Marta Kostyuk for a berth in the round of 16.
There, she then beat 14th seed Kontaveit to reach the quarterfinals, and maintained her spotless record in the quarterfinal round or better at the Grand Slams by seeing off Rogers, Brady and Azarenka for her second US Open title. This made Osaka the first player of either gender born in the 1990s to win three Grand Slam singles titles.
This year’s US Open witnessed several notable storylines with three mothers making it as far as the quarterfinal round. They were Serena Williams, Azarenka and former Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova, the latter playing her first tournament since Wimbledon three years ago. There, Williams and Pironkova battled out in a three-setter, the American coming back from a set down to win, while Azarenka easily saw off Mertens with the loss of one game.
Another comeback story came in the form of Rogers, who sat out of most of 2018 to recover from knee surgery, the American recorded her second Grand Slam quarterfinal result after surviving match points to upset sixth seed Petra Kvitova in the previous round. Interestingly, Rogers’ first Grand Slam quarterfinal, at the 2016 French Open, also saw her upset Kvitova en route, and on both instances, the American would lose to the eventual champion in the last eight.
Trivia: This marked the first time at the US Open, since 1994, where the winner had to come back from a set down in the women’s singles final to win the title. It was also the third time since the Western & Southern Open became a Premier 5 event in 2009 where its finalists would go on to reach the US Open final, and the results in both matches reversed. The first two had come in 2013 and 2016, where Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber won the latter event, defeating Azarenka and Karolina Pliskova, respectively.
Istanbul, Rome, Strasbourg & Paris: Second phase of European clay court tournaments, summer through fall
The Tennis Championship Istanbul, usually held in late April, found itself opening the clay court swing leading up to the final Grand Slam of the year, the French Open. It took place in the second week of the US Open.
The tournament witnessed the notable resurgence of former world number five and 2014 Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard, the Canadian recording her first appearance in a final since Kuala Lumpur in March 2016. She did not always have things her way all week though as she survived long three-setters against top seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and Montenegrin Danka Kovinic in the second round and quarterfinal, respectively.
While Bouchard was enacting her resurgent run, Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig was carving a dominant run of her own on the other side of the draw. The 26-year-old mother, who returned to tour last April after giving birth to a daughter, joined Bouchard in the final but did not drop a set en route. Casualties in the hands of the Romanian include eighth seed Doi as well as second seed Rebecca Peterson.
Bouchard would start out the stronger of the pair in the final but ultimately succumbed to Tig in a third-set tiebreak, the latter earning her first WTA title as a result as Bouchard’s search for her second career title after Nurnberg in 2014 continues.
Trivia: Istanbul became the second consecutive tournament to be won by a mother, after Azarenka’s triumph at the Western & Southern Open. It was Tig’s first career title in three tries as well, having finished runner-up in Baku five years ago and last year on home soil in Bucharest. The Romanian’s ranking also cracked the top 60 for the first time in her career, at number 58, after her title run in the largest Turkish city.
Halep kept the Romanian flag flying high on clay courts in 2020 as she continued Tig’s Istanbul feat by capturing the biggest WTA event on clay this season, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, next. A former runner-up here, in 2017 and 2018, the former world number one sailed through the draw to make the semifinals at the Italian capital for the fifth time in her career without dropping a set.
There, she faced her toughest test of the week, against Garbiñe Muguruza, a rematch of their Australian Open semifinal clash earlier this year, their clash in a row that occurred in a semifinal as well. Halep prevailed over the Spaniard in three sets to make her third final here where she met second seed and defending champion Karolina Pliskova. In what was the first final of 2020 contested between the top two seeds, Pliskova retired down in the second set, with Halep up a set, and the latter became the first to win three titles in 2020.
The tournament also witnessed the return of a couple more top 10 stars in Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic, who all opted out the first two months of the restart. All three faced mixed fortunes in Rome, however, as Svitolina cruised to the quarterfinals where she lost to Marketa Vondrousova, but the latter two crashed out in their respective opening matches.
Trivia: Halep’s title win in Rome saw her join the likes of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova as players who have won the French Open, Madrid and Rome, the three biggest clay court events on the women’s tour. Halep had won the French Open in 2018, and is a two-time champion in the Spanish capital, winning back-to-back titles there in 2016 and 2017.
The final stop on tour heading into the French Open was the Internationaux de Strasbourg, one of the capitals of the European Union. Dubbed ‘Eurometropole’, the tournament lost its top seed when Karolina Pliskova withdrew pre-tournament, leaving Svitolina as the highest seed remaining the draw. The Ukrainian, who has experienced an up-and-down 2020 so far, rode on her Monterrey success pre-lockdown, seeing off Linette, Teichmann, fourth seed Sabalenka to make the final where she went up against the in-form Elena Rybakina.
Russian-born Kazakh Rybakina was in her tour-leading fifth final of the year, recording her first four appearances in the first two-and-a-half months of the season, prior to the tour suspension. There, however, she finished second best for the fourth time in 2020 as Svitolina prevailed in three sets to lift her second crown of the year. The Ukrainian improved her win-loss record in finals which now stands at 15-3, having won 11 of her last 12, the sole loss coming to Ashleigh Barty in the final of the WTA Finals 12 months ago.
Trivia: With Svitolina’s compatriot Dayana Yastremska winning the title in Strasbourg last year, it marked just the second time in the tournament’s history where different players from the same country won back-to-back editions in the 33-year history of the event. The last time this occurred was back in the mid-90s when Americans Mary Joe Fernandez and Lindsay Davenport claimed the title in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Davenport would defend her title the following year, the first successful title defence of the tournament too.
Tennis action on clay for 2020 then moved to its final destination, Paris. The French Open is the only Grand Slam event to be rescheduled this year as it was pushed back four months to the start of fall in late September. Unlike the preceding Grand Slam which had taken place a month prior, the tournament was bolstered with a greater top-10 representation, six to four.
It was upsets-galore at Stade Roland-Garros this year as 13 of the 32 seeds made it to the third round, and that was shaved down to the three come the last eight, namely, third seed Svitolina, fourth seed Kenin and seventh seed Kvitova. Such was the playing field that only four matches between seeded players took place, with just one the second week – Kenin’s first career win over Kvitova, in the semifinal stage.
Iga Swiatek, Poland’s best produce in the sport in years, shocked the world when she stormed through the draw comfortably to walk away with her maiden Grand Slam title. Starting her Parisian campaign with a win over last year’s runner-up and 15th seed Vondrousova where she surrendered just three games, she dropped a combined 10 games in her next two matches, splitting five each, over Hsieh Su-wei and former semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard.
She then produced her best win of the fortnight against top seed Simona Halep, the Romanian managing just three games in the 68-minutes contest, also a rematch of their last-16 encounter here last year, to book her spot in her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal.
There, the Polish teenager swept past another surprise package in Italy’s Martina Trevisan, dropping just four games against the qualifier. Up against another surprise package and qualifier in Argentine Nadia Podoroska next, the first Grand Slam semifinal match-up between unseeded players since the tournament’s 1983 edition, Swiatek showed no signs of slowing down as she surrendered just three games.
Up against Kenin in the final, with the reigning Australian Open champion aiming to score multiple Grand Slam singles titles in a season for the first time since Kerber in 2016, the less-experienced Swiatek overcame mini glitch in the first set en route to the victory, doing so with a forehand winner of her own.
Trivia: Swiatek did not just become the first player born in the 21st century to win a Grand Slam title but the Pole became the first name male or female from her nation to do so. She equalled Jelena Ostapenko’s 2017 title feat here by winning her first career singles title at a Grand Slam event. Having lost just a staggering 28 games all tournament, the teenager’s title run here would turn out to be one of the most dominant in history, tying Chris Evert’s title run here back in 1979, and second only to Steffi Graf who dropped 20 games en route to winning the title in 1988 (en route to completing the Golden Slam that year too).
Ostrava & Linz: Sabalenka clean sweeps indoor events to close 2020
With the clay court swing and Grand Slam action complete, the tour turned to its closing acts, a duo of European indoor events, in Ostrava and Linz, located in neighbouring countries, also the third-largest city in each, the Czech Republic and Austria, respectively.
The J&T Banka Ostrava Open, making its debut on the tour after the cancellation of the Zhengzhou tournament, began after a two-week break following the French Open. Located in the Czech Silesian historical region, Ostrava’s field this year featured six top 20 names, with two being former Grand Slam finalists.
After going 8-5 since the restart, and with just one semifinal to boast, Sabalenka looked very under the radar in Ostrava. The early signs were tellingly evident as her first set of the tournament was a breadstick loss to Gauff, whom she lost to in Lexington earlier, and against Sara Sorribes Tormo in the quarterfinals next, the Belarussian lost the first ten games of the match in succession.
However, she bounced back from those deficits and henceforth, put her foot on the gas, dropping no more than four games a set in her semifinal and final wins over Jennifer Brady and Victoria Azarenka, respectively. Sabalenka thus tied Kenin and Svitolina for two title wins in 2020.
Trivia: Sabalenka and Azarenka played the first ever final contested between Belarussian players. Besides being her first title in Europe, it was also Sabalenka’s first indoors, and her second at the regular Premier-level since winning her maiden career title at the Connecticut Open two years ago.
Having survived an up-and-down but fruitful campaign in Ostrava, Sabalenka returned for her last tournament of the year at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz. As the top seed here, she, alongside doubles partner and second seed Mertens were part of the closing match of the year, also the second time a final between the top two seeds took place.
Both women faced contrasting routes to the championship, the older Mertens taken to a decider three times, while Sabalenka entered the last four without dropping a set, also benefitting from a retirement by Oceane Dodin in the last eight. fter surviving Krejcikova in three sets to set up a repeat of their Lugano final from 2018, Sabalenka was sure to avoid a similar result then when turned the score line, literally, in her favour, by unleashing a backhand winner to convert championship and ties Halep for most titles this year, three each.
The Belarussian also ensure herself a spotless record in finals this year, also a first in her career. Interestingly, all but two of Sabalenka’s win in finals have now come in straight sets, with her Linz title here being the fourth such in a row.
Trivia: Sabalenka’s title in Linz meant that the winners of the first, twentieth and thirtieth editions here were Slavs, with Bulgarian-Swiss Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere winning the inaugural event in 1991, and Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic doing the same here in 2010. Maleeva-Fragniere and Ivanovic are among five names to have won this event twice, the former winning her second in 1993, and Ivanovic lifting her first trophy here in 2008. No player has yet to lift the title here thrice.
‘Projected finalised’ Race to Shenzhen
Had the 2020 WTA Finals gone ahead, this would have been the projected playing field after the conclusion of Linz, with Kenin sitting atop the race standings, followed by Osaka, Halep, Azarenka and Swiatek. Sabalenka, Kvitova and Muguruza round up the top eight, with Mertens and Rybakina in position as the two alternates.
The newly-released ranking list also serves as the year-end rankings for 2020. Barty concludes her second season as the year-end top-ranked player, with her predecessor Halep at second. Rounding out the top five are reigning hardcourt Grand Slam winners Osaka and Kenin, and Svitolina. Pliskova seats at sixth while Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, who would miss the whole year, found herself sandwiched between Czechs with Czech number two Kvitova behind the Canadian at eighth. Bertens and Sabalenka round out the top 10 at ninth and 10th, respectively.