By Giri Nathan
Now that pro tennis players are mostly loafing around like the rest of us, I’ll be looking ahead to the 2023 season on both tours, considering one riser, one faller, and one mystery box. Last week was the ATP, and this week it’s the WTA.
RISING: Carolina Garcia
Perhaps no player swung around her fortunes quite like the 29-year-old Frenchwoman, who rediscovered the athletic and imperious playing style that marked her as a teenage prodigy (according to at least one wise Scotsman). Garcia’s usual tennis abandoned her in 2021, and she fell out of the top 50 for the first time in five years. She started the 2022 campaign ranked No. 74. In the summer she heated up, starting with grass, winning at Bad Homburg, and reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon. She won on clay in Warsaw. Garcia then bowling-balled through the summer hard-court season: 13 consecutive tough wins to claim her then-biggest career title in Cincinnati and make her first major semifinal at the US Open. To tie a knot on the year she won the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, rising above one of the feistier fields in recent memory. During her resurgence, Garcia offered a candid explanation for her decline. She’d lost confidence in her offense, attempted to become a more conservative player, and landed on a futile “half and half” approach. To win again she had to remember that her genuine brand of tennis requires “true belief.” An unapologetic embrace of her huge serve, forehand, and aggressive court positioning got her back to No. 4 in the world, the same high-water mark she hit back in 2018. True belief is perhaps a fickle thing, but Garcia is way too talented to drift that far out of relevance again in 2023.
FALLING: Simona Halep
Several players plummeted down the rankings this season. Veteran staples like Karolina Pliskova and Garbiñe Muguruza rusted away; 2021 US Open finalist teens Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu lost that heap of ranking points and learned the grind of tour life; Naomi Osaka took her eye off the tennis ball. But one concerning case may well be a player who finished the year ranked No. 10: Simona Halep, who seesawed between highs and lows all year. The 31-year-old said she was close to retiring in February. After overhauling her coaching staff and enduring a panic attack at Roland-Garros, she found superb form, making the Wimbledon semifinal and winning the Toronto Masters. That’s roughly when her tennis ended. She pulled out of Cincinnati in the second round with a thigh injury; lost first-round in the US Open to qualifier Daria Snigur, who had never won a tour-level match; and announced that she would wrap her season early to undergo nose surgery, which she said had “a functional part”—correcting breathing issues—”and an esthetic part.” Not long after, she heard the worst: A doping test from the US Open came up positive for roxadustat. It’s an anemia drug that stimulates the production of erythropoietin, a hormone favored by cyclists like Lance Armstrong. Halep wrote that she was “confused and betrayed” by the result and promised to “fight for truth.” She’s been provisionally suspended, and could be barred from competition for years. A report this week in the Romanian outlet ProSport suggests that Halep has begun marshaling her defense. She’s still a ways from absolution.
MYSTERY BOX: Qinwen Zheng
This year Iga Swiatek became the best player in the world by a decisive margin, but two of her toughest slogs were due to a young player who opened the season outside the top 100. Zheng tussled with the queen of clay in their fourth-round Roland-Garros matchup, raging back from a 2–5 deficit in the first set—the only set Iga lost in Paris—before falling in three. “I felt on my racquet today that she can play some really heavy topspin,” Swiatek said of her foe after the match, “and I feel like if she’s going to use it the right way she can really be a great player.” Simona Halep, who was upset in the first round at Roland-Garros, offered her own assessment of the 6-foot-tall dynamo: “Very powerful…some balls, I didn’t even see them.” Zheng gave Elena Rybakina one of the tensest fights of her Wimbledon title run, and later beat Paula Badosa and Veronika Kudermetova on hard courts. By the time Swiatek and Zheng rematched five months later in San Diego—another three-set battle—the 20-year-old had risen into the top 30. She ended the season at No. 27 and should make noise in 2023.
Above: Carolina Garcia & Simona Halep by Getty. Qinwen Zheng by Sue Kwon.