In my seventh 2017 WTA season preview post, I’m thinking about some of the big names who are currently ranked outside the top 10 or taking time away from the sport.
Venus Williams finished 2016 ranked 17th in the world, which is probably an accurate reflection of where she’s at these days. I openly admit that I often underestimate her and she had a fantastic run to the semis at Wimbledon, as well as winning the 49th title of her career in Kaohsiung, but it’s clear that nerves affect her more now than ever before. She was very edgy in losing to Pliskova at the US Open (a match she really she should have won) and lost other very tight matches to Flipkens at the Olympics, Babos in Rome and Konta in Stanford. I hope that 2017 sees her win a 50th career title and have at least one more deep run at a Grand Slam.
Caroline Wozniacki launched a comeback at the very end of 2016. After a very mixed season, she stunned Kuznetsova and Keys on her way to the US Open semi finals and beat Suarez Navarro and Radwanska on the way to winning her biggest title in five years in Tokyo, before wrapping up her season by winning another title in Hong Kong. If she continues this form, there’s no reason why she can’t end 2017 ranked back inside the top 10.
Monica Puig was completely unknown outside the world of tennis before the Rio Olympics. Then she pulled off one of the biggest sporting triumphs of the year by beating Muguruza, Kvitova and Kerber to win Olympic gold, the first ever for Puerto Rico. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to follow this up with any consistent results, but nobody will want to be drawn against her in 2017. She proved that she has the game to be competing at the very top level and it would be great for tennis if she can find the consistency to do that.
2016 was a horror show for Belinda Bencic, after her breakthrough year in 2015. She broke into the top 10 for the first time following a run to the final in St Petersburg in early February, but was plagued by injuries for the rest of the year and ended the season winning only 4 of her final 15 matches and with a ranking of 43. She kicks off the year representing Switzerland alongside the returning Roger Federer in the Hopman Cup, which will surely serve as the best possible motivation to rediscover her confidence and form and push for a return to the top of the game in 2017.
Another player hoping to do the same is Eugenie Bouchard. Hailed as the future of women’s tennis after making the Wimbledon final in 2014, the past two years have been very difficult for the Canadian. She’s shown flashes of the brilliance she’s capable of, including a fantastic win over Jo Konta on Centre Court at Wimbledon but has all too often lost to players she could and should easily beat (her final four losses of 2016 were to Siniakova, Kudryavtseva, Kontaveit and Allertova). She’s re-hired Thomas Hogstedt who should add the level of discipline she needs to start heading back up the rankings, from just inside the top 50 where she’s finished for the past two seasons.
Later in the year, the tennis world should see the return of three of the biggest names in women’s tennis – Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. The reasons for their absences from the game vary from heartwarming to horrifying, and the responses to their comebacks will vary significantly. Everybody hopes that Kvitova can fully recover from the terrible injuries sustained in a knife attack at her home and reach the extraordinary level she’s shown time and again, while similarly positive sentiments will be directed towards Azarenka when she returns to the tour after becoming a mother in December. The reaction to the return of Sharapova from an 18 month drug ban will be markedly different. While still a hugely marketable star, sports fans are very unforgiving when it comes to any doping offences and it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever win over the majority of tennis fans again. She can return to action in May but, with no points to her name, will require wild cards into any WTA or Grand Slam tournaments she wishes to play. While some tournament organisers will jump at the chance to have such a huge name playing at their tournament, it’s unlikely the committees at Roland Garros and Wimbledon will share this view, despite her being a former champion at both tournaments. Whether she can somehow work her way into the draws remains to be seen.