Depth in women’s tennis no surprise for top players

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MIAMI: The WTA circuit has seen only one repeat winner in 13 tournaments this year and for Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who is fast emerging as the next dominant force in women’s tennis, the results underline the depth of talent on the Tour.

Russian Daria Kasatkina, who bagged the Phillip Island Trophy in Melbourne last month, became the first two-time winner on the Tour this year on Sunday after the 23-year-old’s triumph in the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy final.

While Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated the men’s game, women’s tennis has been searching for a successor to Serena Williams since the 23-time major winner became a mother in 2017.

World number two Osaka, who has won four of the last six Grand Slams held on hardcourts, was not surprised there had been so many different winners in 2021.

“I feel like the level of women’s tennis has really risen,” she told reporters at the Miami Open on Tuesday. “Everyone is really strong. Everyone has the capability of winning matches. Outside people might say it’s really random and whatever. But I think just everyone is so strong, so everyone has a chance to win.”

Two-time major winner Simona Halep said the Covid-19 pandemic had made it difficult for the top athletes to perform at their best, contributing to a more level playing field, while world No.1 Ash Barty said the depth of talent was testament to how hard players were working.

“It makes for a really healthy competition knowing every single match you have to be near your best level to compete,” Barty added. “That brings out the best in everyone. It’s pushing everyone to continue to drive to be better.”

The 24-year-old from Queensland elected not to travel outside Australia after the WTA Tour resumed last year, skipping both the US Open and the rescheduled French Open at Roland Garros in September.

However with Covid-19 in retreat in several parts of the world, and authorities more adept at managing safety protocols, Barty has travelled to Florida for the first stop on what should be a gruelling year.

The Aussie got a taste of international travel in the age of coronavirus when her journey to the United States ended up taking nearly 50 hours.

“It was a long one,” Barty said on Tuesday. “It was about 48 hours door-to-door. We had a flight cancellation leaving Australia, another flight cancellation when we got to LA. It was quite a wriggle around.

“Tough playing tennis after traveling again. Quite a while since I’ve done that. I’m looking forward to feeling good in another day’s time.”

Barty, who will face either Hailey Baptiste of the United States or Slovakia’s Kristina Kucova in her opening game, said she is excited for the season ahead despite finding leaving Australia difficult.

“It was quite hard to leave and quite emotional to me,” she said. “But I think we’re excited to have the opportunity to play the whole season. We’re looking at staying away the whole season.”

Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open winner, said there were no easy matches any more, not even in the early stages of tournaments.

“It’s very visible because right from the first matches on, you have to be 100% ready,” the Belarusian said. “There are a lot of girls who are able to produce such a high level of tennis. I think sometimes for some young players it’s a bit more difficult to have the consistency.

“But on any given day you know it can be dangerous, and the level is going to be high.”

The women’s field at the Miami Open was deprived of a star name on Sunday, when Serena Williams withdrew from the tournament as she recovers from oral surgery.

On court in early round games on Tuesday, elder sister Venus Williams crashed out at the first hurdle, losing 6-2, 7-6 (12-10) to Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas.