The 2016 WTA season will be remembered as the year that Angelique Kerber seized top spot, largely behind titles at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows. However, she also enjoyed success at Wimbledon 2016 and at the WTA Tour Finals, both tournaments that she finished runner-up in. But the season should also be remembered as one where numerous great players had tennis setbacks of sorts, including Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Petra Kvitova.
Serena Williams, of the five players just mentioned, is the only player whose setback can be considered age related. The American, who is now 35 years old, still managed to win Wimbledon 2016, but she finishes the year ranked No. 2. A shoulder injury has prevented her from playing since the US Open, and it’s not clear what to expect from her in the future. If you agree that her dipping ranking is likely the result of aging, then perhaps it is one that should be expected to dip further in 2017.
Maria Sharapova’s setback in 2016 has nothing to do with aging. The 29-year old Russian received a two-year suspension from tennis early in the 2016 season for using Meldonium after it was placed on the banned-substances list. She went virtually the entire season without any match play and accordingly she is off of the radar when it comes to the WTA’s rankings. Sharapova’s arguably-harsh suspension was reduced in recent months. However, she still won’t be back in time for the Australian Open.
Victoria Azarenka’s season started with incredible promise. She was strong at the Australian Open and even stronger during the hard-court swing through both Indian Wells and Miami where she won two titles. She also won a title early in the season in Brisbane, and I felt that she would finish the 2016 season ranked No. 1 in the world. However, her results dipped on clay and a short time later she announced that she was pregnant. Due to this, she has not contested a match since the French Open and what she will bring in 2017 isn’t clear.
Her expecting date is in early 2017, but you don’t exactly bring a child into the world one month and win tennis titles the next. Kim Clijsters comes to mind as a mother who won Grand Slam titles, but her 2009 US Open title came a year and a half after giving birth. Unfortunately, I can’t say I expect anything significant out of Azarenka in 2017.
Her, Sharapova, and Williams all had setbacks in 2016 for very different reasons. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova had somewhat similar seasons. Both players did poorly in the early going of 2016 only to re-emerge in the latter months.
Kvitova claimed her first and only title of the season late as she won WTA Wuhan in the early fall. Her victory over Kerber en route to that title is a candidate for match of the year. She also had a nice run at the Olympics where she won a bronze medal with a win over Madison Keys.
Strong tennis came late for Wozniacki in 2016 as well. She had a season that was easy to forget until she broke out in New York and made the Flushing Meadows semifinals. A title would follow in Tokyo and another would follow in Hong Kong, results that suggest that she will be a key player in 2017.
But looking back at all that transpired in 2016, the WTA season could actually be called shocking. Back on December 31st, 2015 who would have thought for a second that none of Wozniacki, Kvitova, Azarenka, Williams, or Sharapova would be in the year-end tour finals? Perhaps it’s very fitting that surprise champion Dominika Cibulkova claimed the year-end WTA Tour Finals. Not a lot went according to the script in the 2016 WTA season, so why not have Cibulkova win the tour finals?
When it comes to the lesser surprises that are still worth mentioning, the 2016 season saw two other former World No. 1s fall off the radar. Ana Ivanovic started the season ranked 16th, and she is now 64th. Jelena Jankovic started the season 21st, but she is now 56th. Meanwhile, teen sensation Belinda Bencic had an injury-plagued season that moved her from 14th to 43rd.
As strong as Kerber’s season was, she did beat up on a diluted field of talent in 2016. I don’t mean to sound critical of the German, because she doesn’t control things like aging, suspensions, pregnancies, or poor form due to injuries. But I think those circumstances are as much of a reason why she finishes 2016 as the top-ranked player as her own work ethic, court coverage, and determination. The 2016 season is one where Kerber took full advantage of the opportunity that she was presented and as a result, she has a permanent place in history now as a year-end No. 1.