Eight WTA Players to Watch in 2017 With Serena Williams Out of the Mix
I’ve had the “Best Players Not Named Serena Williams” column brewing for a while, and I struggled with the tone. I mean, it’s like writing the “Teams other than Golden State that could win the West” article. Sure, there are other people out there, but really, as Highlander taught us, “there can only be one.”
Well, not anymore! With the announcement that Serena is pregnant and will not be competing in 2017, I am sure she and her family are THRILLED (congrats Serena, by the way!), but probably no more thrilled than EVERYONE ELSE on the WTA Tour.
No Serena means that women’s tennis is like the 1994 NBA free-for-all with the sudden departure of Michael Jordan. Everyone who was hoping for second has legit, wide-eye’d, I can almost taste the trophy vigor.
We now know that all three remaining major titles are up for grabs.
Angelique Kerber (GER)
There’s a good chance casual fans were unaware, but Kerber is actually the current #1 ranked player in the world even with Serena still in the mix. Exit Serena, and more major championships could soon be entering the 29-year old German’s life. Kerber beat Serena at the Aussie Final in 2016 (she took a disappointing fourth-round loss to Coco Vandeweghe this year, more on Coco later) and lost in the 2016 Wimbledon Final to Serena.
However, in the immediate future, she is far from the favorite at Roland Garros. In her career, Kerber has only made it as far is the quarterfinals in 2012 and was a first-round upset loser in 2016. She isn’t necessarily considered a “bad” clay court player, but there is no getting around her French Open disappointments.
Kerber is #1 in the world, with a healthy lead over #3 Karolina Pliskova, and with a 22-8 record in 2017 and Serena out of the picture, Kerber gets the first crack at the opportunity to be the best female player in the world.
Simona Halep (ROM)
Halep is currently ranked #5 in the world, but could be poised for a big move. She has some French Open success on her resume with a Finals loss in 2014 (to Maria Sharapova, who will be back real soon) and made the fourth-round last year. She followed that performance up with quarter-final appearances in the year’s last two majors.
Halep took a month and a half away after withdrawing from the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy with a knee injury, but has since returned to play two tournaments and posted a 4-2 record with three of the wins in her showing at the Miami Open last week.
Halep is, like most of the muddled women’s field, far from a sure thing. But at just 25 and now healthy, she has some major tournament success in her past and a nice opportunity to make a move even further up the rankings.
Petra Kvitova (RUS)
This one is a total wildcard and a wild story. Kvitova finished last season ranked 11th in the world, but hasn’t played yet in 2017. While recovering from an injury over Christmas, her home was robbed and she suffered tendon damage trying to defend herself. Not quite Monica Seles stabbed on the court, but bizarre stuff, right? Alas, two days ago, she surprisingly announced she was submitting her name for the 2017 French Open. Will she be rusty? Sure. Could she be a first-round ouster (if she even plays)? No doubt. But she will likely be quite the crowd favorite if she can get on the court.
She ended 2016 on a high note (playing -wise) with a win at the WTA Elite, winning the tournament as the #3 seed. She also won the Dongfeng Open in early October with wins over Kerber, Halep and Cublikova – a pretty nice run to say the least.
Caroline Wozniaki (DEN)
Somewhere along the way, Wozniaki became the really good tennis player that people liked to take shots at. The knocks were many – how can she be #1 when she’s never even won a major? Some found her whiny after her over-publicized break-up with golfer Rory McIlroy, and of course the biggest knock, Serena OWNS her (1-10 career record).
At least two of those things are true (no comment on her personal love life). It is also true that she is all the way down to #11 in the rankings and no longer immediately thought of as a definitively elite tennis player. I’m not so quick to bury the former World’s #1 player. So far in 2017, she has made three tournament finals, in Miami, Dubai and Qatar. The third-round loss in Australia to Johanna Konta gets the most attention, but her 28-8 record in 2017 bears paying attention to. Wins over Mugaruza, Pliskova (second and third sets at 6-1), Keys and Radwanska deserve some attention as well. They prove Caroline still has the chops to take down Top Ten players, sometimes in dominating fashion. I’m not counting Wozniaki out just yet, especially with her arch nemesis on the sidelines for the rest of 2017.
Catherine (CiCi) Bellis (USA)
Madison Keys is the highest rated American female player, Venus is still knocking around at #12, even though she rarely plays a full schedule, and Coco Vandeweghe made a nice run to the semi’s Down Under at the Aussiebut is still just 8-5 this season. The future of American Women’s tennis may very well be Cici.
Bellis turned 18 just two weeks ago and is knocking on the door of the Top 50 in the world. She made a spectacular run to the Quarter’s in Dubai last month, knocking off #6 Agnieszka Radwanska in the process, winning the decisive third-set 6-2. She lost in the first round of the two tournaments since, but anytime a teenager can win three matches in a big-time tournament including a win over a Top Ten player, it is time to start paying attention.
This young American earned her first win over a Top Twenty player at just 15-years old, the same year she became the youngest American Junior’s Champ since Lindsey Davenport in 1991. She hasn’t slowed down since, making the third-round of the US Open last year before being routed by Angelique Kerber (um, the world’s #1 player).
Can Bellis break through and make a Quarter Final at a major? It’s probably too soon. But can she win some matches and be a real young bright spot for American tennis? Absolutely.
Johanna Konta (ENG)
The 5’11’’ Brit announced her presence with an impressive showing at the Miami Open last week. She captured the title by beating Simona Halep, Venus Williams and Carolina Wozniaki in the final three rounds, dropping just the first set to Halep in the process. Going straight-sets over Venus and Caroline in back-to-back matches is pretty darn impressive. Konta is now ranked #7 in the world and is the highest earning female player without the last name “Williams” in 2017. She is a staggering 21-3 on the season and made it to the Quarter’s in Australia (beating Wozniaki again) along the way, before running into the Serena Williams buzzsaw. But guess what!?! Serena’s not here for a while, so let the good times roll!
We’ve already had Andy Murray capture the Wimbledon crowd fancy as a UK’er (not ‘English’, but hey, they REALLY needed to claim him as their own so close enough), now in 2017, they have a real chance to root for truly one of their own as a legit contender. She has never advanced past the second round at the All England Club, and had never advanced past the second round of a major until the 2015 US Open. Heck, she was scarcely a Top 50 player two-plus years ago, but 2016 saw her leap into the Top 10, and 2017 has been a magical year so far. Don’t be surprised if the 25-year old keeps it going as she squarely embraces her tennis prime.
Aside from Konta, no one has been more impressive in 2017 than the imposing 6’1’’ Czech 24-year old burgeoning star. Pliskova has already risen to #3 this year, her highest ranking ever, and is currently sporting a 25-4 record this season. She lost to Wozniaki in last week’s Miami Open and lost in a tiebreaker in the semis the tourney before at the BNP Barnabas to Kuznetsova. She won the Qatar Open and the Brisbane Open and lost in the quarterfinals in Australia to Lucic-Barrone in a good three-set match.
She lost a hard-fought Final at the US Open in 2016 to Angelique Kerber and will be looking to breakthrough in 2017. The way she is playing right now, I wouldn’t put it past her to capture her first major title.
Venus Williams (USA)
Just because Serena is taking a hiatus (hopefully just a hiatus, right?) doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the brilliance of the Williams’ for another tennis season. Please don’t retire yet Serena. Not just yet… Venus won her first major in 2000, when CiCi Bellis was one year old, and made her first Major Final at the 1997 US Open at the age of 17. We often ask, “who’s the next Serena?” but were it not for her little sister, we would be instead asking the question, “who’s the next Venus Williams?”
Let’s start with the obvious – Venus is going to turn 37 years old this summer before Wimbledon. That’s insane. In tennis years, she is about 5 years past mandatory retirement age, but just like in the men’s game, some players are so transcendent the rules of time and space just don’t seem to apply.
The other nagging issue when referring to Venus as “one to watch” is how rarely we actually get to WATCH her. She doesn’t play that much. That means her ranking becomes somewhere between “misleading” and “irrelevant.” I’m not sure she has the gas to win Roland Garros at age 37. She hasn’t fared any better than last year’s fourth place finish on the clay in Paris since a Quarter in 2006. It’s not her best surface, so let’s assume nothing insane happens this May.
But after that? Would you pick anyone definitively ahead of Venus at the All-England this summer? I wouldn’t. She made the semi’s last year before Kerber got her 6-4, 6-4, avoiding the always-awkward All-Williams final. She has won the tournament five times and lost in two other Finals (to guess who), so no one knows the lawn better than Venus.
She is 18-6 this season in six tournaments, playing a pretty heavy schedule in comparison to previous years, the obvious highlight being the Aussie Open Final loss… to Serena. So, more than any other player in the history of tennis, does anyone benefit MORE from the absence of Serena in the draw?
The biggest name in women’s tennis may be gone for the year, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an awesome season in store. Be sure to check back for our French Open Preview as we near the next major tournament of the season!