It would be a huge understatement to say that the short WTA off-season has been tumultuous. Between the drama surrounding who would be allowed into Australia and whether the virus would even permit the January tournaments on the continent to move forward, to the ongoing tragic saga of Peng Shuai, everyone on tour is glad be be back together and focused on tennis.
Yet these first couple of days of play of the new year and new season have seen some of the game’s top players fall in their first matches in Melbourne and Adelaide, two of the small buffet of pre-Australian Open warmups.
Those who have taken an early exit include top 10 superstars Aryna Sabalenka, Elina Svitolina, Paula Badosa, and Maria Sakkari - with world number one, Ash Barty, narrowly surviving a first match loss.
Why are a disproportionate number of top players finding the first week so difficult?
It’s a long trip.
There’s really no better way to say it. The trip to Australia from where these players reside all over the world is an arduous one in normal times - but we haven’t seen normal times since 2019. It’s a long trek down and it’s slower than ever with all of the required paperwork and testing. It’s also a massive time zone change for the vast majority of the top players.
So it’s natural that there would be a period of transition, worsened by players who either didn’t want to arrive as early as they normally would or were impeded by the pushback of the planned December arrival dates by the Australian government. Either way, it will be seen later this month at the Australian Open whether players who arrived early and perhaps took a loss this week will be at a competitive advantage over the players who arrived a bit later and skipped this first week of pre-Australian Open tournaments.
It’s not from lack of preparation.
One of the most fun things today from the perspective of a women’s tennis observer and huge fan, is being able to follow the progress of your favorite players on social media. It was evident throughout the off-season that many WTA players enjoyed a holiday, and then got right back to work. The level of physical conditioning of even the average WTA player today is significantly higher than it’s ever been. It really was admirable and remarkable to watch the work ethic of these top athletes through their Instagram feeds as their relaxed off-season turned into an intense preseason.
It’s super hot.
Sure, we all realize that tennis players are used to playing in the heat, but it has been remarkably hot in Melbourne and Adelaide to begin this WTA’s season. Players have been training and playing in temperatures over 35C, which is a real shock to the system for players who came to Australia from Scandinavia, Russia, and even the United States. Arriving early is going to give some players an advantage in getting used to the climate before the Australian Open less than two weeks from now.
There is more parity in women’s tennis in 2022 than in any year in WTA history.
That’s a bold statement but the facts support it. It is simply going to be harder for even the most accomplished, highly-ranked players to get the win on any given day this season. It used to be that matches were extremely competitive within the top 10, while players in the top 20 always had a decent chance of winning a match. But women’s tennis has evolved to the point where anybody in the top 100 is going to give anybody else in the top 100 a competitive match.
That’s a truly remarkable thing and something that is the fruit of the WTA’s‘s decades of planning and support of national tennis programs.
The reality is we’re simply getting more great players from all over the world, including countries that don’t necessarily have a rich tradition of producing top 20 players. This bodes extremely well for the long-term health of women’s tennis and the WTA.
Finally, the pressure.
Not the pressure of being a top-ranked player, though that’s certainly always there, but rather an amplified version of the same pressure all of us are living under after 22 months into a global pandemic pressure cooker. We should be heaping tons of praise and respect on all of these players, who endure the rigors of global travel, staying in hotels around the world under pandemic conditions, and then going out on a tennis court and giving it 100% day in and night out.
The good news is that it’s all going to work out for these players and for the fans. The 2022 WTA season is going to be the best one in the history of women’s tennis - a deserving crown for the only professional sports organization to have the courage to stand up for what’s right, rather than politically or economically expedient.