December 28, 2019

2020 Vision: Serena Eyes #24...But There Are Roadblocks

Welcome back to my look at what's to come for tennis in the new year. In my last post I talked about the Big Three's dominance in the sport for the past decade-plus and a couple of the guys who might be ready to take the mantle when they're ready to cede it.

And speaking of passing the torch, it's coming up on Serena Williams' time to do that too, though some might argue she's further along in the process than the guys. While still the perennial favorite at any tournament she enters -- she was, after all, just named AP's Female Athlete of the Decade -- the elder statesman of the WTA has fallen short of that record-tying 24th Major title in her last seven appearances. Four times she's gotten within one match from the Promised Land but has been foiled in turn by Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, and most recently Bianca Andreescu -- who, you'll remember, was ranked in the triple digits at the start of the year. It's now been nearly three years since Williams has won a Major, the longest dry spell she's ever had at those events. She actually hasn't won a single title -- singles or doubles -- since returning from maternity leave.

I do believe, eventually, she'll have that breakthrough though, and maybe even do better than "just" tying Margaret Court's lead. After all, she's reaching finals, not flaming out in early rounds. And as Osaka so astutely points out, the fact that she ended the year in the top ten while playing as few tournaments as she did shows she's more than holding her own out there. Still, she is running out of time. I'm not willing to say 2020 is Serena's last chance to close the deal, but you have to think it's gotta happen quick if it's gonna happen at all. I mean, look at all the talent waiting in the wings.

There is, of course, the crop of players who've gotten the best of Williams as she went for #24 -- Kerber has actually won two of their last three Major championship showdowns, though has struggled with injuries this year and fallen to #20 in the world -- as well as a couple who knocked her out earlier in the rounds -- Sofia Kenin, impressively backed up her French Open stunner with titles in Mallorca and Guangzhou. There are also a slew of youngsters who shocked the world this year with their deep runs at the Slams -- Amanda Anisimova (a semifinalist in Paris) and Marketa Vondrousova (the runner-up!), Danielle Collins (final four in Melbourne), Karolina Muchova (quarters at Wimbledon).

But there are some other names looking to break the seal for themselves that might be able to take advantage of any holes in the draw, whether or not they have to go through Serena to do it.

Top of my list is Elina Svitolina, who came just short of her second WTA Final crown this fall, but pulled off wins over Halep, Kenin, and Karolina Pliskova to make the final match. She also got to the semis at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and the quarters in Melbourne. She is a bit off her career high ranking and didn't win a title in 2019, but this workhorse seems to have solidly broken into the top tiers and seems ready to make something of it.

More of a long shot, but someone I've been watching for a while, is American Alison Riske. Long a mid to low double-digits player, she won her first title since 2014 in Den Bosch and stunned Ashleigh Barty and Belinda Bencic at Wimbledon. Ranked 18th in the world now and closing in on her 30th birthday, she seems to be playing the best tennis of her career. There may be no better opportunity for her to show the world what she's really got.

Remember to check out the rest of my 2020 Vision and keep coming back for more Tennis Spin all year long! Coming up tomorrow: There are a couple players who made big splashes in 2019, but will they keep it going in the New Year?

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