The year 2021 marked the first time in the 2020s, tennis has witnessed competition on all three playing surfaces in a season calendar.
In addition, a new set of tour reforms, the first since 2009, took effect this season - the introduction of new categories of tournaments, namely, WTA 1000, WTA 500, and WTA 250 events – which replaced the now defunct Premier Mandatory & Premier 5, Premier, and International categories, respectively.
From the hard courts of the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, to a February Australian summer swing, followed by the clay and grass seasons, the latter two back in their usual slots, a new Grand Slam singles champion was crowned whilst the world number one continued to stamp her mark atop the world rankings.
With the tour transitioning focus towards the Tokyo Olympics and the American summer hard court swing next, we revisit the season's happenings.
Abu Dhabi: Sabalenka carries prior winning form, into season’s opener in a new norm
An announcement in the off-season last year that there will be a new stop, in Abu Dhabi, to open the upcoming season, kick-started the lead-up to the new year.
That came owing to the fact that Tennis Australia, an overseeing entity of the season’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, had marked nearby city Dubai as one of its charter flight hubs, the others being Los Angeles and Singapore.
The Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open, in lieu of events in Brisbane, Shenzhen and Auckland, thus ushered in the 2021 season, with its venue at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre, running from 5 to 13 January.
As a 500-level tournament, the tournament was not the sole event that took place at the venue that week as the Australian Open qualifying competition also ran concurrently, beginning 10 January.
Having returned to competition prior summer after the lifting of the tour lockdown as one of the in-form players, winning titles in Ostrava and Linz in the fall to close her 2020, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus carried her momentum in 2021, by marching into a third consecutive final, at the Emirati capital.
In the final, up against a fellow power hitter in unseeded Veronika Kudermetova of Russia – their first meeting in a main draw, having not faced for more than five years, fourth seed Sabalenka maintained her spotless record over the Russian with a clinical 6-2, 6-2 in a dominant display.
The title vaulted the Belarussian up to a 15-match winning streak, dating back to her said Ostrava and Linz titles, and her Abu Dhabi crown was the ninth of her career too.
Australian summer swing: World number one Barty makes winning return, Osaka maintains Grand Slam mastery on hard courts
From the Emirati capital, tennis action then turned its attention Down Under, in Melbourne, with tournament action starting off right after players have completed the mandatory two-week quarantine.
The week of 1 February witnessed the commencement of a trio of WTA 500 events, all of them taking place at Melbourne Park, the home of the Australian Open.
The Yarra Valley Classic and the Gippsland Trophy were the only two events originally planned that week, before a late hiccup occurred when a few players were identified as close contacts of positive cases in several chartered flights into the Victorian capital.
That led to a hard quarantine for the affected athletes which resulted in the creation of the Grampians Trophy.
Notably, there were crowds to cheer on players throughout the week, and for most of the fortnight throughout the Australian Open, save a five-day snap lockdown, a feature that was absent in Abu Dhabi the previous month.
World number one Ashleigh Barty, having last played a competitive match almost a year ago, in Doha, defied all doubts as she shook off many months of rust by capturing the Yarra Valley Classic title, making it her second title on home turf, after Adelaide last year, as the Aussie saw off Garbiñe Muguruza in the final in straight sets.
Meanwhile, Elise Mertens was named Gippsland Trophy champion, after seeing off a more powerful opponent in veteran Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, the Belgian winning the final in straight sets.
At the aforementioned Grampians Trophy, Ann Li and Anett Kontaveit, in a rare occurence, both shared the victor’s crown owing to a delayed schedule – the finalists seeing off the likes of Jennifer Brady and Maria Sakkari, respectively, in their semifinal matches.
In the season’s first Grand Slam, 2019 champion Naomi Osaka tasted success once again in Melbourne Park, the Japanese player reclaiming the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, her fourth Grand Slam title, with all four now coming on hard courts.
En route to the final, former world number one Osaka, seeded third, had to save a match point against 2020 runner-up Muguruza in the last 16 (where she dropped her only set of the tournament), and then in the quarterfinals, defeated veteran Hsieh Su-wei in a pan-Asian quarterfinal (a Grand Slam first where two women of different Asian nationalities appeared in the last eight).
Two more wins over American duo in the form of Serena Williams and Brady, dropping seven games in each match, ensured Osaka a Grand Slam title victory for the fourth year running.
Post-Australian Open action on the continent first kicked off with another tournament taking place at Melbourne Park, the Philip Island Trophy, also the inaugural 250-level tournament.
Held concurrently with the second week of the Australian Open, Russian Daria Kasatkina rolled back the years as she returned to winning ways by lifting the title over Czech Marie Bouzkova in the final, hence snapping a title drought of more than two years.
Meanwhile, a week later, the second edition of the Adelaide International saw the reigning Roland Garros champion crowned tournament winner once again as Pole Iga Swiatek capped off a dominant week, by defeating Swiss Belinda Bencic in the final, having not dropped a single set throughout the tournament.
Middle East swing and Miami: Kvitova and Muguruza end title droughts, Barty defends Miami title
Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova opened her birthday month of March in style, sauntering to her second title in Doha, and the 28th of her career besides it being her first since Stuttgart in 2019.
The Czech, in a rematch of the 2018 final in the Qatari capital, beat Muguruza once more but this time, in a more straightforward fashion, doing so in straight sets with the loss of just three games.
Muguruza, however, would not be let down by the result as the Spaniard herself soared to her biggest title since Cincinnati in 2017, and first since Monterrey in 2019, by capturing the title in Dubai, the week after.
Dubai was the first ever 1000-level tournament on the tour to have taken place, and there, in the final, Muguruza did face Czech opposition again, this time in future fellow Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova.
The fortnight of the Middle Eastern double in Doha and Dubai also witnessed two first-time title winners in Clara Tauson and Sara Sorribes Tormo, at smaller events in Lyon and Guadalajara, respectively, the former tournament serving as the first one of 2021 to be held in an indoor setting.
The month continued on with two more tournaments on hard courts entering the Miami Open, in St. Petersburg and Monterrey, where Kasatkina became the first player in 2021 to win multiple titles whereas in the latter, Leylah Fernandez won her maiden career title, in her second career final (and second on Mexican soil too).
Closing the final two weeks of action on hard courts before transitioning to clay, world number one Barty continued her winning form at the debut mandatory 1000-level event in Miami, capping off a success title defence in a fortnight which saw her record wins over the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina and in the final, Bianca Andreescu – albeit via retirement.
Clay courts back in early summer: Barty, Sabalenka and Swiatek carry title-winning forms onto the dirt, Krejcikova continues streak of first-time Grand Slam champions at Roland Garros
The Volvo Car Open in Charleston, the tour’s sole stage on green clay, opened the month of April and with it, the arrival of the clay court season.
Like how she had opened the season in Abu Dhabi three months ago, Kudermetova moved into her second final of the year on the South Carolina Lowcountry but was successful this time as she saw off Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in straight sets for her maiden career title.
Meanwhile, that same week, in South America, local hopes came through in Bogota at the Copa Colsanitas, as teenager Maria Camilia Osorio Serrano became the first Colombian to win here, on home soil, since Mariana Duque Mariño in 2010, the former defeating Tamara Zidansek in the final.
A second stage of tennis action held at the Volvo Car Open’s venue, the MUSC Health Open, saw Australia’s Astra Sharma lift her maiden singles title, coming back from a set down to defeat top seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia in the final.
At the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, the tour’s only tournament played on clay indoors, Barty claimed her third title of the season, over Sabalenka in the final, to take home the winner's Porsche, and that result was reversed in their own rematch, in the final of the Mutua Madrid Open two weeks later – both contests going the distance too.
Meanwhile, veteran Sorana Cirstea ensured a second consecutive champion for Romania at the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul, as she capped off a stellar week with her second career title, putting to rest a title drought of more than 12 years, which dates back to Tashkent in 2008.
At the Italian Open, Karolina Pliskova’s love affair with the Eternal City wrote another chapter as the 2019 champion reached the final at the Foro Italico for the third year in a row.
Going up against a Roland Garros champion in the final for the second year running, this time in Swiatek, the latter proved too much to handle for the Czech as she stole the show with a 6-0, 6-0 win to seal her second title on clay.
The next two weeks heading into the second Grand Slam event of the year saw the likes of first-time title winners in Paula Badosa and Krejcikova emerge, in Belgrade and Strasbourg, respectively, whilst teenager Coco Gauff won her first title on clay, also the second of young career, at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Parma.
For the sixth consecutive edition of Roland Garros, a first-time Grand Slam singles champion saw her name etched on the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen as Krejcikova became the first Czech not named Kvitova to win a Grand Slam singles title since Jana Novotna in 1998.
Krejcikova’s fortnight in Paris had seen her defeat the likes of Svitolina, 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens and Gauff en route to the last four, where she topped Sakkari in a long match that went to 9-7 in the decider, before prevailing in three sets to beat fellow Grand Slam final debutante Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, in the title match.
By virtue of winning the women’s doubles title the following day, Krejcikova became the first player since Martina Navratilova in 1987 to win Grand Slam titles across all disciplines in a single year, the former having won the mixed doubles title at the Australian Open earlier this year.
Return of grass after two years: Barty a tournament champion on each surface for the second time after 2019
The first ever grass season of the 2020s was focused in the United Kingdom and Germany – changes to this swing being the tournament in Mallorca now defunct, and the s-Hertogenbosch stage cancelled for 2021.
Taking place concurrently with the second week of Roland Garros, the Nottingham Open witnessed its first home star crowned tournament champion, in the top seed Johanna Konta, who was a runner-up twice prior, with the Brit seeing off China’s Zhang Shuai in the final.
The following week, at the inaugural 500-level tournament in Berlin, the Bett1 Open, qualifier Liudmila Samsonova of Russia capped off a momentous week by defeating a slew of more-experienced opponents such as Madison Keys, Azarenka and Bencic, to collect her maiden career title.
Meanwhile, at the Birmingham Classic, it was third-time lucky for Jabeur who finally became a tournament champion, after runner-up finishes, at Charleston earlier this year and before that, the Kremlin Cup in 2018, as the Tunisian avenged her loss in a rematch of the latter to Kasatkina – to become the first Arab woman to be crowned WTA tournament champion.
The concluding leg of grass-court warm-up series moved to the British coastal town of Eastbourne, and the German spa town of Bad Homburg – where Latvian Jelena Ostapenko and local hope Angelique Kerber were crowned champions, respectively, prevailing in their respective all-European title matches, against Estonia's Kontaveit and Czech Katerina Siniakova.
The Championships of 2021 at Wimbledon saw a streak – first-time Grand Slam champions at Roland Garros winning their second such title at next edition of the Championships held after the year they won the former – repeat itself, for the second time dating back to Muguruza’s Roland Garros title in 2016.
This time, it was Barty who followed in the footsteps of Muguruza, and Halep – the latter being the one other player to have completed the aforementioned feat.
Having had to end her Roland Garros tournament early via retirement in the second round, Barty once again showed why she belongs at the summit of the rankings as the Aussie steered her way to the Venus Rosewater Dish – her second Grand Slam singles title.
Along the way, the top-ranked star dropped just two sets – in the opening round over the returning (and soon-to-be retired) Spanish veteran Carla Suárez Navarro, and in the championship round against Pliskova – the latter appearing in her second Grand Slam final, and first since the 2016 US Open.
The achievement was a notable one for Barty and her home nation of Australia as she became the first Aussie woman to win Wimbledon since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980, also 50 years removed from the latter's first triumph at SW19, in 1971.