Aryna Sabalenka’s long-awaited confirmation as a Grand Slam champion and a corker of an Australian Open final were a welcome balm for the WTA as the women’s tour seeks to move on from a bruising loss of star power.
Challenges lie ahead, however, as the circuit negotiates a tricky geopolitical landscape and a scheduling impasse with the lucrative Chinese market.
After years of struggling with nerves on the biggest stage, 24-year-old Sabalenka’s three-set win over Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in the final at Melbourne Park gave the big-hitting Belarusian her first Grand Slam title.
Now world number two and boasting one of the most powerful games in women’s tennis, she looms as a major threat to top-ranked Pole Iga Swiatek, who she beat at the WTA Finals. The development of a proper rivalry between the pair would be a tonic for the WTA which has produced few of note in recent years and recently lost Serena Williams, a player that transcended the sport, to retirement.
Sabalenka’s hopes of shaking up the women’s game may be taken out of her hands at Wimbledon, however, if Russian and Belarusian players remain banned from the grasscourt Grand Slam.
Sabalenka, along with all Russian and Belarusian players, missed Wimbledon last year after organisers controversially excluded them as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special operation”. With the conflict in Ukraine showing no sign of ending, a decision about Russian and Belarusian players competing at the All England Club is pressing.
The ban had other consequences that are still being felt today, with players who competed at Wimbledon unable to earn ranking points from the tournament after it was sanctioned by both the WTA and the men’s ATP tour. The loss of points was a setback for some players, not least champion Rybakina, who would have had a much higher seeding than 22 at the Australian Open.
The 23-year-old had to knock out Swiatek and two other Grand Slam champions in a tough draw at Melbourne Park to reach the final.
Her ranking has now jumped 15 places to 10th as a result of that run, which should help the Russia-born Kazakh’s bid for a second Grand Slam title to add to her Wimbledon trophy.
The Australian Open provided another reminder of the strength of Chinese women’s tennis as Zhang Shuai and Zhu Lin reached the last 16 of the women’s singles.
The Chinese men’s game, long overshadowed by the success of the country’s women, also showed promise as teenager Shang Juncheng became the first Chinese man to win a main draw match at the Australian Open in the professional era.
China’s abandonment of its zero-COVID policy is expected to pave the way for the return of international tennis after a three-year hiatus, and the ATP has three events in the country listed in its 2023 calendar.
The WTA’s schedule remains blank after the U.S. Open, however, with no clarity on tournaments to be held in China pending a resolution to the Peng Shuai issue.
Former world number one doubles player Peng accused a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault in 2021 in a post on social media that was soon removed from the country’s internet.
She later denied having made the accusation. The WTA has called for a formal investigation into Peng’s allegations and wants to meet with her privately to discuss her situation, a spokesperson told Reuters this month.
With China having hosted nine WTA events in 2019, including the season-ending WTA Finals in Shenzhen, the women’s circuit has suffered without the Asian powerhouse’s participation in recent years and has plenty more to lose if the stand-off continues.