Ashleigh Barty, freshly-minted Top 10 player and big-time tournament winner, just joined arguably the wildest show in sport.
With the Serena Williams era gradually dimming, women’s tennis has entered a period of delightful unpredictability that could hardly be more different to the ‘Big Three’ show in men’s tennis.
Being world No.9, as Barty is, would give her virtually no hope of winning a Grand Slam in the men’s game; not with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic around. But by taking out a Premier Mandatory event in Miami, just one step down from a Slam, Barty has proven that she has the class to join the truly elite bracket of the women’s game; a title-contending group that is far bigger than three players.
“I think particularly on the women’s side, I think the level has evened out a lot and the depth has grown over the last few years,” Barty said after winning in Miami, a victory worth nearly $2 million.
“I think anyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning the tournament. I think you have to continue to put yourself in those situations and try and make the most of it.”
Consider these differences in men’s and women’s tennis.
In the ‘Big Three’ era, starting with Federer’s first major at Wimbledon 2003, just 10 players have won Grand Slams. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have won 58 of the past 63 Slams, with the ‘Big Three’ boasting 52 of those trophies.
In that same time, 23 women have won majors. Stretching back to the start of the Williams era (her first major was the 1999 US Open), 26 women have claimed Slams, with Venus Williams and Justine Henin the next biggest winners (seven titles) behind Serena’s 23.
In the ‘Big Three’ era, only five Slam finals have been played without at least one of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic in action. They are Andy Roddick vs Juan Carlos Ferrero, US Open 2003; Gaston Gaudio vs Guillermo Coria, French Open 2004; Marat Safin vs Lleyton Hewitt, Australian Open 2005; Marin Cilic vs Kei Nishikori, US Open 2014; and Andy Murray vs Milos Raonic, Wimbledon 2016.
For 14 years, Cilic-Nishikori is the only major final that hasn’t featured one of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray. Gaudio is an extreme outlier in terms of winner rankings, having claimed the Roland Garros title as world No.44, while Cilic was also unusually low for the era at world No.16. Roddick and Safin were both fourth seeds.
That same period of women’s tennis is vastly different. Using the same model, with the Williams sisters and Henin as the three dominant players, we have seen 26 Slam finals played without one of those big stars. Henin’s 2011 retirement skews the numbers somewhat, but the difference remains clear.
Until Naomi Osaka won the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open, no woman had posted consecutive Slam wins since Serena in 2015; we had seen 12 one-off major wins in a row. One of those winners, Sloane Stephens at the 2017 US Open, was ranked No.83 when she lifted the trophy and was ranked as low as No.957 that year.
The more volatile results in women’s tennis have translated to far more chops and changes in the rankings. In men’s tennis, only Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray have been No.1 since Federer first claimed the top ranking and top spot has changed hands 17 times. In women’s tennis, 16 players have held the No.1 ranking during the same period and the top rank has changed hands 40 times.
And just look at the weekly cut and thrust of this season. Of 14 WTA/Slam tournaments this season, there have been 14 winners; the longest streak of different winners in tour history. The men’s tour has followed a similar path, though of the 20 tournaments thus far, the only repeat winner is Federer, age 37.
We’ve forever been waiting for the next big thing in men’s tennis, the player who could crack the ‘Big Three’s’ dominance. Serena has been the only truly dominant player in this era of women’s tennis and we’ve continually seen new stars emerge.
And while Barty is wonderfully humble, as is world No.1 Osaka, there is a wide range of personalities among the new brigade. Some prefer the confrontational approach.
Before Barty broke through with her win in Miami, 18-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu scored the biggest tournament win of her career at Indian Wells, also a Premier Mandatory event. She beat triple major winner Angelique Kerber in the final, before seriously annoying the German veteran in a rematch at Miami a week later.
Andreescu beat Kerber again, this time in the third round and partly thanks to a medical timeout. Kerber was fuming and told the teen, “Biggest drama queen ever” during a brief, unpleasant handshake at the net. Rather than feel cowed, Andreescu embraced the feud, asking her Instagram followers to caption a picture of her pointing during the match, then gleefully highlighting a raft of anti-Kerber responses; among them, “I’m not the drama queen you are” and, “There’s the trophy you didn’t win, Angie”. Beef achieved.
Barty is made of different stuff (she posed with her Miami Open trophy in a black t-shirt and jeans), but brings her own remarkable story to the table, having quit tennis in 2014 to play Big Bash League cricket.
She has rejoined tennis at an exciting time and at 22, seems to have discovered what it takes to win at the highest level.
“I feel like we have jumped over a few hurdles this week. We have been able to, you know, make the most of some situations that I put myself in,” she said.
“I think that’s the beauty of this sport is that there is always another opportunity to become a better player, to try and make the most of what you can. That’s what we have been able to do over this last fortnight, to beat some really quality players. And to back it up each day is probably the most pleasing.”
If Barty manages to win a Grand Slam, she would be the first Australian to do so since Samantha Stosur in 2011 at the US Open.
If she becomes a multiple Slam winner, she would be the first Aussie since Lleyton Hewitt (2001 US Open, 2002 Wimbledon) and the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong (who won the last of her seven majors at Wimbledon 1980).
The Australian still has some way to go – her Australian Open quarter-final this year was her best result at a Slam – but she is now a Top 10 player and a serious force in the crazy current world of women’s tennis.