A friend of mine joked recently that the best way to beat Simona Halep is to tell her she’s playing for the WTA number 1 spot. I remembered that joke again when I watched her match against Garbine Muguruza for the Western & Southern Open final, in Cincinnati. Muguruza won 6-1, 6-0 and the score is not lying.
Halep was just one win away from becoming the new world number 1 in women’s tennis. For the third time this year! But she didn’t manage to show any sign of resistance in the 56 minutes the match lasted. Having beaten Anastasija Sevastova, Johanna Konta and the rising Sloane Stephens all in straight sets to advance to the final, Halep didn’t do herself justice. She has admitted having recurring nightmares about her Roland Garros final loss against Ostapenko earlier this year. In that match, with her first Grand Slam title and the WTA number 1 at stake, Halep was up a set and a break before Ostapenko unleashed her final attack to beat her. And the question remains, will she ever make it to the WTA number 1? Or rather, which female tennis player can comfortably sit in the WTA throne, at least for the remainder of the season? The fact that it’s so difficult to answer that question is one of the reasons I love women’s tennis so much.
The floor is the WTA number 1 spot
Remember that kids’ game we used to play called “The floor is lava”? We’d stand on furniture around the room and jump from one piece to another, trying to avoid stepping on the floor. If you touched the floor you’d get injured or burned. This thread on reddit jokingly compared the WTA race to number 1 with that childhood game. I thought it was a brilliant metaphor. In the post-Serena-Williams era (or at least until she gets back) women’s tennis is probably one of the most unpredictable competitions in sports out there. Many established female tennis players seem to be in a position they had never been before. They no longer chase after Serena to get to the top. Players like Kerber, Pliskova, Halep, Muguruza, Kuznetsova or even Cibulkova fall under this category. Instead, they have to defend their ranking against each other and against “newbies” who’ve come hungry for success. Svitolina, Konta, Vandeweghe, Kasatkina, Ostapenko and many more have come out swinging recently. But they, too, seem to lack the experience, mental toughness or consistency to comfortably sit at the top yet. With Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova out of the picture for a while, the race is in the balance.
So who will be the next WTA number 1?
As of August 21, Rafael Nadal is the official ATP world number 1 after 3 years. And although the men’s race is still open, the women’s counterpart is far more intriguing to watch. In theory, 8 players will have a chance to become the new WTA number 1 after the 2017 US Open. Realistically, the battle will come down to 3 or 4 by the time the second week of the tournament gets underway. Let’s see their chances…
The current WTA number 1, Karolina Pliskova, is far from comfortable with her 6,390 points. As a runner up at the 2016 US Open, she has to defend 900 points during the tournament. Simona Halep is only 5 points away. This practically means Pliskova has to make it to the final again to retain her ranking. Pliskova’s biggest weapon, her serve, has shown signs of instability lately. Plus, anyone who watched her match against Wozniacki in Toronto knows she still has trouble keeping a cool head against defenders who run her around the court.
Only 5 points away from Pliskova, Halep has the best chance to become the next world number 1 in women’s tennis. But wait, she’s had the best chance 3 times already. In the French Open, then in Toronto and most recently in Cincinnati, each time being only 1 win away from the top spot. Simona is one of the most consistent players right now and has made great progress both in her fitness levels and the mental part of her game. But she hasn’t proven she is cut out to be number one (or a Grand Slam winner) just yet. Most likely she will become number one at some point soon, but she is unlikely to stay there for long.
Garbine Muguruza is probably the most interesting case among the contenders. Since she won the Roland Garros last year, Muguruza seems to have improved on some key areas. She shows great focus during a match, has added some top spin which allows for better margins and is not afraid to stick to her aggressive plan even when things don’t go her way. After a tough (and tearful) loss to Mladenovic at the French Open this year, Muguruza managed to turn things around and win the Wimbledon. That kind of mental toughness makes her the favorite both for the number 1 ranking and the 2017 US Open title, in my opinion. And the most likely to stay there for a while.