March 21, 2019
The new WTA rankings are out with Naomi Osaka holding a narrow lead. But what do those rankings tell us about women’s tennis?
As Miami begins, no fewer than five women could become world number one by the end of the tournament.
That’s how crazy, exciting and downright unpredictable women’s tennis is right now.
But will the unpredictability continue for much longer?
Let’s take a look at the latest top ten.
1. Naomi Osaka 5591
2. Petra Kvitova 5550
3. Simona Halep 5457
4. Angelique Kerber 5315
5. Elina Svitolina 5225
6. Sloane Stephens 5222
7. Karolina Pliskova 5145
8. Kiki Bertens 4995
9. Aryna Sabalenka 3620
10. Serena Williams 3406
Thrilling. Confusing, too. Sure, the stats don’t lie. But take a glance at some of the players further down the list.
Players who have won Grand Slam titles relatively recently
Caroline Wozniacki is number 13. She won the Aussie Open last year.
Garbine Muguruza is number 17. She won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017.
Jelena Ostapenko is number 23. She won Roland Garros in 2017.
Muguruza, always a mystery, was thrashed 6-1, 6-0 at Indian Wells by Belinda Bencic, now ranked 20.
The winner of that tournament, new sensation Bianca Andreescu, is moving up rapidly but still only ranked 24.
So some of the world’s finest female tennis players aren’t even in the top ten – or anywhere near it.
On their day, it seems that any of the top 25 or so women can not only beat, but utterly pulverise any other in the same class.
It is incredible. What they offer in terms of explosive, high-quality entertainment, they lack in consistency.
But wait. There is consistency. At least in the Grand Slam events.
Naomi Osaka has strung two together – the US Open and the Australian Open.
That might not seem like much. But in the crazy world of women’s tennis, it is significant.
World number one
Osaka is world number one for a reason. She has the big-time mentality and she has proved it while still young.
There is nothing in her most recent form to suggest that Naomi is about to move head and shoulders clear of the pack.
Osaka was downed by Belinda Bencic at Indian Wells. And she is still finding her feet after parting company with her coach, Sascha Bajin at the end of the Aussie Open.
Then there is her ongoing psychological battle with the European Slam surfaces, clay and grass.
Will this count against her?
In the immediate aftermath of her Aussie triumph, Osaka admitted: ‘I have always felt like I could maybe be an all-court player.
‘… I think mentally, I don’t like clay. I always tell myself I don’t like clay, so I never really embrace anything about it.
‘And that is something I have to change and the same goes for a grass court because I see people slide and slip and it is a little bit frightening for me. I think I have to change that.’
It is probably unwise to underestimate the mental strength of Naomi Osaka in the long run, or indeed her ability to find the answers and adapt to each surface.
She says she is frightened and maybe she really has been every bit as worried on clay and grass as she says.
But anyone who totally buys the seemingly-fragile persona sometimes presented by Naomi Osaka had better take a look at those rankings once more.
She is a tough cookie deep down. And after making the confession about clay and grass, she will do all she can to overcome her fears.
She will be ambitious to become that all-surface player she dreams of being.
It might not happen this year. And Naomi might not even be world number one by the end of Miami.
When you can’t even say which of five players will be world number one from tournament to tournament, you realise how finely balanced and supremely competitive the women’s game is.
But will that last indefinitely? If anything can be predicted in this unpredictable world of women’s tennis, it is this: the glorious unpredictability will probably only be temporary.
Osaka has what it takes to seize control in the long run. Sure, she will have intense rivalries.
Maybe the Canadian Andreescu will step up further still to become Naomi’s biggest rival of all.
For now, however, we should just embrace the amazing closeness of the race for world number one.
We have no idea who will win next. How could we? But we can still have theories about how it will all take shape eventually.
And after what she has already achieved, it is hard to see past Osaka in the years to come.
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