Around the world the whispers were loud: Serena and Venus are great, but it sure would be nice to see some new faces out there. After all, Serena in particular dominated the Slams, winning six of twelve majors between 2013 and 2015. But then she suffered a shock upset to Roberta Vinci at the 2015 US Open, and Angie Kerber beat her in this year’s Aussie Open final. A new day was dawning.
Sure, for a while a number of players have hovered near the top: Streaky Czech Petra Kvitova twice won Wimbledon and just claimed the Wuhan, China title. Now ranked No. 11, the powerful southpaw just hasn’t been able to camp out at the very top. Aga Radwanska, with her magical shotmaking, reached the 2012 Wimbledon final, and Romanian Simona Halep‘s feisty defense-to-offense wizardry took her to the brink of winning the 2014 French Open.
This year there have been some inspiring breakouts. The South Carolinian Shelby Rogers – who Mary Carillo said was the kindest, sweetest person in the history of civilization – came out of nowhere to reach the French Open quarters. As spunky Monica Puig sprinted to Olympic glory, a headline said she was in a “Puig of Her Own,” becoming the first Puerto Rican to win a Gold Medal. In New York, when it came to the young Californian Catherine Bellis, “CiCi-ing Was Believing,” as the steely teen again made a high-profile US Open run.
Of course, some bright stars, like Genie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens, have flashed shiny promise, only to falter. But now fans are focusing on an exciting new insurgence of players with wondrous backhands and curious backstories. Here are nine who’ve attracted our attention:
An Italian writer – the one who’s always looking for a provocative angle – seemed desperate. Just before the US Open final, he told Angie Kerber that she was like Sampras: “Pete would tell us that he was ‘just a tennis player, nothing more, nothing less.’ I need to write my story. Say something,” he pleaded, “tell us a story about your mother – something.”
Kerber lets her racket do the talking. And, like Pistol Pete, her racket shouts loud. Hitting flat, seeing the court brilliantly, creating angles, moving with roadrunner speed, the best defensive player in the game has become incredibly fit and has found an unshakable confidence. Plus her serve (once described as a meatball) is less of a liability, and she has a mental toughness you can almost taste.
Kerber may not be a household name. Adidas is not about to claim she’s the best athlete of all time. We won’t be seeing her on HSN soon. But she’s such a pro.
Charming and appealing, the most improved player in the WTA knocked Serena off her throne as No. 1 after a record 186 weeks atop the rankings. She has scored more wins overall and victories over top 10 players this year than any other player. The Aussie and US Open champ, Wimbledon finalist and Olympic silver medalist now imposes – speed kills. She’s the first woman not named Serena to win two Slams in a year since Justine Henin. A glint in her eye, she’s poised to forge a crowd-commanding rivalry with Serena.
Kerber has much in common with many a former No. 1. She’s German just like her idol Steffi Graf (who gave her a nifty pre-season pep talk). She’s a dicey lefty like Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles. She’s blessed with much of the grit, fight and quick-twitch speed of Henin as well as a Serena-like penchant for prevailing in long, dramatic, big-stage bouts. Yet Kerber, 28, is unique. In the US Open final she faced Karolina Pliskova, who was on a dandy 11-match winning streak.
Never mind that Pliskova had never gotten beyond the third round of a Slam, was down match point to Venus in the fourth round and this was her first Slam final.
Who cares? The Czech was playing with an astounding composure. Arm loose, groundies deep, grace apparent, she led the WTA in aces and had been crushing top foes as if she was a whack-a-mole wiz.
At the Open she beat both Venus AND Serena. But in the final Pliskova came out tight and lost the first, 6-3. However, soon she became more intense, cut down on her errors and charged the net with zeal to capture the second set 6-4.
Literally and figuratively, Pliskova brought Kerber to her knees. But Angie’s game is built around defense, scamper-ability and a fighting spirit that shouts, “I’ll bend, but not break.” And at 3-3 the German hit a decisive forehand to wrest control. Kerber’s confidence (four huge finals in just eight months), her conditioning and defense-to-offense savvy kicked in as she broke in a flash to claim the Open title. Her 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win was a gritty work of beauty. Once tucked within the WTA pack, now Angie was our new angel even though writers never did get any heartwarming stories about her mother. Instead we again heard the truths of a beaming dream whisperer. In Australia she told IT, “Do what you love. This is what I did and my dream came true.” In New York she continued. “I was always dreaming to be one day No. 1. I knew I…[had to] be patient and work really hard…You have to believe in your dreams…[Some day] I’ll show videos to my children and…tell them [and] everybody — just believe and do what you really love.”
Spain’s Muguruza is in the stately tradition of statuesque beauties from Maria Bueno to Maria Sharapova. She graces matches with an easy power. Her 6’1″ stature and considerable serve impose. The 2015 Wimbledon finalist, she unleashed her flat, economical groundies to take down Serena and win this year’s French Open. Since then she’s wavered, but many still see her as the appealing face of the WTA’s future.
Pliskova emerged from the shadows, shocking one top five player after another to win the Cincy title and reach the US Open final, where she nearly beat Kerber. A bit of a wonder, her flowing power makes everything seem almost lyrical. Who knew tennis could be this easy? Blessed with a big serve, she emerges from the ova-the-top (Navratilova to Kvitova) Czech tradition, and like Serena has a sister on the tour.
Millennial Madison gives us “Big Babe” tennis with a twist. Though just 21, her astonishing power and girl-next-door “Americanism” has drawn fans. Her game is trending nicely. Now she crafts points with far more mastery, but she still has to learn how to string victories together so as to lift trophies. In the meantime, many delight in her quiet charm offenses about her family, trendy music and the quirky delights of our millennials-matter world.
Time and again we see young girls emerge with innocent glee, subsumed with delight at the possibility of dancing on the big stage.
As a giddy teen, Monica Seles tossed flowers to a French Open crowd. Steffi Graf gushed, “Golly, everyone would choose my life, wouldn’t they?”
Now, for the past two years, the enchanting Naomi Osaka has tweaked our interest. Carefree, matter-of-fact, and bemused, the No. 46 ranked player projects an oblivious Holly Golightly ‘tude. When she scored a breakout win over Sam Stosur, she began to wander off the court until the court-side announcer said, “Hold on, don’t go” and told her she had to shake hands with the chair ump, do an interview, and hit balls into the stands. Then when she came to the interview room, Osaka pointed to the microphone and asked, “Do I talk into this?” Such innocence. Asked when she realized she was a good player, she replied, “When I was born.” And what about the fact that she was born in Osaka, Japan and was named Osaka? She replied with a devastatingly straight face, “Oh. Everyone in Osaka [population 2.7 million] is named Osaka.”
Though whimsical and reflective, Osaka has a hefty serve and a devastating forehand. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, she moved to Florida and eventually rose in the rankings. All the while, fans loved her quips. After she took the first game of a match against Vika Azarenka, she revealed that she told herself, “This is going to be easy.” But, in the next game, as she began to be crushed, she thought, “Maybe not.” She lost 6-1, 6-1. After going down to Simona Halep, she admitted, “I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I’m so immature I start freaking out.” But don’t be surprised if, in the coming years, fans are freaking out over the WTA’s Holly Golightly, Ms. Osaka from Osaka.
One of our best comeback stories, the voluble Bacsinszky retired from tennis at 23 in 2012, only to blaze her way to the top 10 in 2015, winning 15 consecutive matches in the spring and giving Serena a scare in the French Open semis. A cannonball backhand and a flair for well-timed drop shots are two of her chief weapons. This summer she and Martina Hingis won the silver medal in Rio.
It’s been three decades since British women’s tennis has had a solid top 20 hope, but that’s changed with the maturation of the Australian-raised Konta, 25, whose big, unorthodox serve and flexible forehand were in full effect as she reached the Aussie Open semis this year and won the Bank of the West Classic. The cerebral Konta, who has worked with a mental coach to tame her temper, could just possibly become the first British woman Slam winner since Virginia Wade.
The Swiss craftiness and clever court sense of Martina Hingis has been passed down to teen Bencic, whose prowess as a junior quickly translated into pro success, including a quarterfinal run at the 2014 US Open and wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Halep, and Serena to claim the Rogers Cup title last year. Bencic has fought injuries and slumped in 2016, but her game is a refreshing contrast to the tour’s power players.
A junior champion like Bencic, the Croatian boasts a massive whiplash forehand and all-court touch that translates especially well to grass, where she won her first title in 2015. Just 18, if she can avoid injury, her game may be big enough to contend for Slams.