WTA Finals: With Barty missing, it’s all change at the season finale as one spot remains

Singles debutantes include Swiatek, Krejcikova, Sabalenka, Badosa, Sakkari; Jabeur, Kontaveit in No8 frame

Maria Sakkari
Maria Sakkari (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

More than a month after the WTA announced the names of the first qualifiers for the relocated WTA Finals in Guadalajara, world No1 Ashleigh Barty announced she would not be making the trip back from homeland Australia to Mexico.

It was always on the cards: Barty had not been home since she left in February for the first time in more than a year. The quarantine restrictions for returning to Australia have been some of the toughest in the world following the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. Easier, then, for Barty to stay on the road, and pack in 42 match-wins, five titles, and another year’s worth of residency at No1.

But with the Miami and Cincinnati 1000 titles, plus an emotional Wimbledon victory, she pulled the plug on 2021 after her third-round exit at the US Open, opting to miss Indian Wells and the defence of her WTA Finals title. She said:

“I wanted to let everyone know that I won’t be competing in any further tournaments in 2021, including the WTA Finals in Mexico…

“With the ongoing challenges of travelling back to Queensland and quarantine requirements, I am not willing to compromise my preparation for January. My focus is now on the Australian summer and doing everything I can to win the Australian Open. I can’t wait to play at home again.”

She won the WTA Finals title two years ago in Shenzhen, but with the entire Asian swing cancelled for the second consecutive year, the prestigious finale to the women’s tennis season will be hosted for this year only at the Akron Tennis Stadium in Guadalajara.

But it is not only the venue that has a new look this year. With Barty not involved, there is just one other name among the qualifiers who was in Shenzhen in 2019. The evergreen Karolina Pliskova has qualified among the last eight for the fifth time—and is three times a semi-finalist. And while she failed to win a title this year, the Czech came painfully close at some of the biggest tournaments: Rome, Wimbledon, and Montreal.

However, there will be no Simona Halep, or Petra Kvitova, or former champion Elina Svitolina. And Naomi Osaka is still below the cut-off at No11, with no more tournaments on her schedule. Instead, there are new faces aplenty.

Iga Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova surged up the ranks following wins at the French Open, with the former clinching this year’s Rome 1000. Both will make debut appearances in the singles draw at the WTA Finals.

Another young woman making her debut is Paula Badosa, courtesy of a particularly strong clay and then autumn season. It began with semis in Charleston and Madrid, then the title in Serbia and quarters at the French Open. On the hard courts of North America, it was another quarter-final in Cincinnati, completed by the title at Indian Wells.

Fellow 23-year-old Aryna Sabalenka sealed her place a while ago, and will be the top seed in Mexico now that Barty has pulled out. After winning Ostrava and Linz to close 2020, Sabalenka opened this year with the title in Abu Dhabi, reached the final in Stuttgart and won the Madrid 1000. Then came semis at Wimbledon, Montreal and the US Open, to complete one of the most consistent performances of the last 12 months.

The only other ‘old hand’ to make the cut is Garbiñe Muguruza, who has qualified for the fourth time after reaching four finals in 2021, and winning in both Dubai and Chicago Fall.

One of the most popular additions to the top ranks has been Maria Sakkari, the first Greek woman ever to qualify for the year-end championships—achieving many other milestones into the bargain. She made the semis of the French and US Opens, the Miami 1000 and Abu Dhabi 500, and reached the final in Ostrava, scoring seven top-10 wins along the way.

So there is one place left, and currently, there appear to be just two in contention for that eighth place and the ninth ‘reserve’ spot.

No8, at the moment, is filled by another record-making woman, Ons Jabeur, who became the first Arab player to reach the top 10 last month after reaching the semis in Indian Wells. Already, the Tunisian had broken new ground by reaching the quarters at two Majors—Australian last year, Wimbledon this year—and all with an appealing style of tennis full of variety, spin, drop-shots, and smart tactics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it earned Jabeur’s first WTA title on grass, in Birmingham, but she added to a solid season with finals in Chicago and Charleston to compile a tour-leading 48 match-wins.

However, she now has Anett Kontaveit breathing down her neck after the Estonian piled on the points in the latter stages of 2021 with titles in Cleveland, Ostrava, and last week at the Kremlin Cup—her fifth final of the year.

So it is notable now that Kontaveit is the only woman in the top 16 of the Race to play one of the two remaining tournaments: Winning the Transylvania Open could edge her past Jabeur. She is second seed, but with Halep at the top of a draw also containing US Open champion Emma Raducanu, there are certainly no guarantees. This Race could go right to the wire.

Current WTA Finals ranks

Ash Barty (qualified but withdrawn) 6,411

1. Aryna Sabalenka (qualified) 4,768

2. Barbora Krejcikova (qualified) 4,518

3. Karolina Pliskova (qualified) 4,036

4. Maria Sakkari 3,341

5. Iga Swiatek 3,226

6. Garbiñe Muguruza 3,195

7. Paula Badosa 3,112

****

8. Ons Jabeur 3,020

9. Anett Kontaveit 2,881 [max of 3,096 with title in Cluj-Napoca]

10. Naomi Osaka 2,771

11. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 2,548

12. Elina Svitolina 2,501

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