The Queen of the WTA has been out of commission for over a year now. Pregnant during her Australian Open win in 2017, Serena Williams then took time off to carry her first child. She gave birth to her daughter during the U.S. Open in September, and while she’s clearly taken to motherhood, her focus also turned quickly toward her tour comeback. Early on, there were even rumors that she’d defend her Australian Open title some four months after giving birth.
That was probably a silly expectation to begin with, but because it’s Serena Williams plenty of us (myself included) bought in. It never sounded that weird to imagine mother-to-a-four-month-old Serena Williams hitting the 110-degree courts in Australia, because, well, she’s not normal. In the end, however, the Australian Open proved too soon, and when she tried to come back soon thereafter she clearly wasn’t herself. Williams lost a lopsided doubles match with her sister Venus at the Fed Cup, lost to Venus in straight sets at the BNP Paribas Open, and was handled fairly easily by Naomi Osaka in the first round of the Miami Open. Williams’s long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou has acknowledged she probably came back soon, but says she’ll be ready for the French Open.
If that’s true – not that she’ll play, but that she’ll be ready – we should probably expect to see Serena Williams contending for Grand Slams sooner rather than later. In the meantime, however, her absence has teased a reality that’s always been difficult to imagine: a WTA in which Serena Williams is not the best player. She still is the best player when she’s at her best, and for all we know she has ten Slams left in her (seriously, would you be surprised?). But it’s at least reasonable now to ask who’s next.
These are some of the names that come to mind.
Garbine Muguruza (24, Spain)
Despite a mildly disappointing 2017 so far, Garbine Muguruza is the obvious answer here. Still only 24, she’s a two-time Grand Slam champion, having won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon last year. She actually doesn’t win quite as often as you might expect – comparing her to some of the great champions of the last 15 years or so, her 66 percent career winning percentage is notably lower than those of both Williams sisters, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Kim Clisters – but she still gives every indication of being able to win more titles. She’s a heavy hitter at 6’0’’, and can adjust her game to all surfaces. And she has more big match confidence than anyone else listed here. Muguruza will win at least a few more Slams, which when it’s all said and done may make her look like the successor to Serena in the history books.
Sloane Stephens (25, United States)
Sloane Stephens can be a frustrating player. She has all the talent she needs to beat anyone on tour but seems to have trouble unleashing it; you can often hear it in the voices of the commentators, as if they’re just yearning to see her reach her full potential but they’re a little bit tired of waiting for it. Or at least, that was the case before her shock run to win the U.S. Open last fall. One Slam title – particularly as an unseeded player returning to the tour after injury issues – does not automatically make her Serena’s heir. But Stephens has always had a flair for big matches, and she now knows she can win on the ultimate stage. That makes her very dangerous heading into her prime.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
Simona Halep (26, Romania)
Simona Halep takes some heat for not being able to win the big match. It’s justified. Since 2014 she’s advanced to the semi-finals or finals of all four Grand Slams, as well as the WTA Tour Finals, and hasn’t managed to win any of them. She just seems to wilt a little bit at the finish line, and at this point it’s fair to wonder if there’s a little bit of self-doubt. At the same time, she has the best résumé of any WTA player without a Slam title, which counts for something. She has five Slam semis to her name, is #1 in the world, and is still just 26.
Madison Keys (23, United States)
It’s hard to find any weakness in Madison Keys that can’t be chalked up to inexperience. She’s tall and long, she moves well, and her strokes are powerful and aggressive (though this can change when she occasionally appears winded in longer matches). Keys succumbed to pressure at the 2017 U.S. Open final against Stephens, but at just 23, it feels like she’s starting to pound on the door of Slam success. With Keys more than Halep, it feels like one Slam might lead to several more.
Daria Kasatkina (21, Russia)
Currently #13 in the world, Daria Kasatkina has made it clear she’s going to be a force. At just 21, she’s already notched match wins against some of the best players in the WTA (Venus Williams, Stephens, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, and Jelena Ostapenko to name a few), and she’s starting to make it deeper into the Slams. Even modest improvement would land her squarely in the top-10 for years to come.
Naomi Osaka (20, Japan)
Perhaps this is a bit reactionary. Osaka had an overall record of just 23-22 in 2017, and has one career singles title. But that one title – a recent win at the BNP Paribas Open – has raised her profile significantly. To win that tournament she beat Maria Sharapova in the first round, Agnieszka Radwanska in the second, and closed things out with three straight against Karolina Pliskova, Halep, and Kasatkina. She also smoked Serena at the Miami Open, though obviously this should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, not a bad year for a 20-year-old.
THE LONG SHOT
Eugenie Bouchard (24, Canada)
I suspect a lot of people who watch tennis just snorted at the inclusion of Bouchard’s name here. Fair enough. Bouchard has been completely out of sorts for the better part of three years now. She lost her way on the court and even had a concussion issue that led to a successful lawsuit against the USTA. Through it all, she’s fallen out of the top 100 in the WTA rankings. Nevertheless, it does feel like she’s lurking just out of sight with plenty of potential to come back in a big way. Bouchard is a skilled, athletic offensive player who made the semis of the Australian and French Opens and the final of Wimbledon all in her age 19-20 season. She’s still just 24, and her ability didn’t just go away.