When top-ranked Naomi Osaka won her second Grand Slam tournament in succession at the Australian Open in January, it looked like the WTA might have found a player with sufficient gravitas to succeed Serena Williams. The main obstacles standing in her way appeared to be three Grand Slam champions: deposed No. 1 Simona Halep, resurgent Petra Kvitova (Australian Open runner-up) and Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber.
The hype was heavy. Referring to Williams and Osaka, an article in The Atlantic declared: "Women's tennis is now a two-headed monster ... the rest of a deep field still lurking."
But Osaka drew a blank in the weeks following her win Down Under. She faltered before the quarterfinals in the two next big tournaments, the BNP Paribas Open (Indian Wells) and the Miami Open -- arguably the two most significant of the sub-Grand Slam tournaments. More intriguing, perhaps, is that her demise was not the handiwork of those rival Grand Slam champions but, respectively, Belinda Bencic and Su-Wei Hsieh -- neither of whom was seeded in the top 20.
Now, more than 12 weeks into the new year, the WTA is not a two-headed monster but a 14-headed one, because that's the number of singles tournaments -- and different tournament champions -- the tour has produced in 2019. Meanwhile, Halep, Kvitova and Kerber have exactly one title between them -- the one Kvitova secured in Sydney.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" Ashleigh Barty said after she bagged the Miami Open title last Saturday. "I think particularly on the women's side, I think the level has evened out a lot, and the depth has grown over the last few years."
Truly, the days when any of the top eight seeds could sleepwalk to the quarterfinals without surrendering more than a handful of games are long gone. But it still took the tour a few generations (a generation being 10 years, give or take) to fully mature and achieve the kind of competitive depth it now features. This young generation -- those up to age 22 -- may be the strongest yet. Barty, a newcomer to the Top 10 at No. 9 this week, could well be its talisman.
It seems a pity the ATP has already locked up that "Next Gen" thing.
Barty was so well schooled and disciplined that she burned out not long after turning 18. She left the tour for a year and a half, then returned in minor league tournaments in May 2016. She's still just 22, and nobody older than that has won a WTA tournament on the ubiquitous hard courts this year. Some winners in recent years were significantly younger. The group includes 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who became the first wild-card entry to win at Indian Wells, as well as a struggling 21-year-old who's already won a Grand Slam event, 2017 French Open champion No. 31 Jelena Ostapenko.
Bencic, who recently turned 22, has been on fire since she won in Dubai in February. She's ranked No. 21 after a long struggle with injury, thanks partly to wins over, among others, Osaka, Halep, Kvitova and No. 4 Karolina Pliskova. Aryna Sabalenka, just 20, kicked off the WTA year with a commanding win in Shenzhen, China. By the time the Australian Open rolled around, she was at or very near the top of every pundit's "most dangerous dark horse" list. Sabalenka lost in the third round at the Australian but is still ranked No. 10.
"I think they are playing just good tennis," the 27-year-old Pliskova said of this group following her loss to Barty in the Miami finals. "You know, who won Indian Wells [as well]? Yeah. I think they are going for it. They don't have the pressure which maybe the other players have."
Perhaps these young players do feel the pressure but their resistance gene is more highly developed. Or maybe their fight-or-flight instinct skews toward battle.
"I think anyone in the draw has a legitimate chance of winning [any] tournament," Barty said. "I think you have to continue to put yourself in those situations and try and make the most of it. I think the margins are getting smaller and smaller, particularly in the women's game."
The sense that opportunity exists for all seems to have had an emboldening effect. The problem some recent Grand Slam champions have had consolidating their success --- Ostapenko is outside the top 30, while Garbine Muguruza, a two-time Grand Slam champion, is down to No. 19 -- is another powerful motivator. As proven winners lose and peers win, almost anyone can ask, "Why not me?"
As Barty said, "When you see girls having success, it motivates you. I've had a unique journey, [but] every tennis player who walks on the court has had a different journey and experiences."
Barty's contention that anyone can win these days doesn't sit very well with those who long for the days when a Serena Williams, Justine Henin or even Chris Evert laid down the tennis law. Some around tennis miss dominant players and marquee rivalries. To them, the WTA glass contains an effervescent beverage, but the glass is half-empty rather than half-full.
Robert Lansdorp, who shaped the games of numerous champions including Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras, told ESPN.com: "Today, you look at a Muguruza or an Ostapenko and you wonder, 'What the hell happened?' They are losing, but not necessarily getting beat. They aren't losing because the other players are better, but because they're playing badly. Nobody seems tough enough to hang in there and play the same kind of tennis that brought them up."
Lansdorp acknowledges the physical power that so many of the WTA stars possess, but he feels that unlike Davenport, or a Monica Seles, many of today's established players don't have the requisite consistency and become easier pickings for the rising generation.
"I hate to say these players today aren't mentally as strong," Lansdorp said, referring to a common criticism of the current elite players. "That's too simple, but it may be a part of it. One other answer may be that they have all this power, with the advanced strings and rackets and balls, but they don't really know how to control it. The consistency just isn't the same."
Lansdorp wonders if Osaka, whose game he admires, will go the way of other flawed elites and settle for a relatively high ranking and the rewards it brings while only popping up to play great tennis at intervals. But domination of the kind some of his protégés demonstrated is a 24/7 undertaking built on discipline until it becomes habitual.
Evert, now an ESPN analyst, said during the broadcast of the Miami Open women's final: "The thing I'm seeing is that these women [like Osaka] are having trouble developing momentum." Evert added that, in the past, one sure way to identify a player destined for greatness was the way success made their ambitions burn with greater rather than less intensity. After tasting success, they wanted more. And more. And they wanted it immediately. There were no "I have plenty of time" excuses.
Barty's generation may produce such a player, and perhaps it will be Osaka herself when she gets accustomed to her new coaching arrangement and has a chance to process the setbacks of March. But it's also possible that we're entering an unusual era in which nobody really wants to be a dominant player, because the rewards for being a very good one are more than sufficient. This isn't exclusively a WTA issue; it may also apply to the ATP when the Big Four age out of the game.
After all, the ATP also failed to produce a repeat champion in 2019 until Roger Federer won in Miami. That was a 19-tournament streak (six more that the WTA skein).
"I don't think the WTA or ATP, once the Big Four are gone, will be in trouble because there will be a lot of interesting players for fans to pick from," said Lansdorp, who sees plenty of fine players on the ATP side but a dearth of potentially great ones. "Maybe people don't care if nobody dominates. They're only in trouble with people like me, because I know what it's like to have those other players around. The ones who dominate."
Even if no dominant player materializes in the near future, the tennis is likely to be unpredictable -- and exciting.