Another season of Grand Slam tennis begins at the Australian Open on Monday, but Agnieszka Radwanska, who retired in November, won’t be part of it.
Aptly called “The Ninja” for her ability to inflict out-of-nowhere pain on the opposition from all manner of contortionist positions, Radwanska’s spectacular, poker-faced shotmaking will be missed.
But even without its Ninja, the women’s game is in a memorable phase when it comes to entertainment value and players with an uncommon touch.
At the moment and probably not for long, the tour is a clash of generations with Serena Williams, 37, and Venus Williams, 38, still in the mix along with midcareer champions like Angelique Kerber, 30, and Caroline Wozniacki, 28, and the new wave led by Naomi Osaka, 21, the Japanese sensation who upset Serena Williams to win the United States Open last year. It is rare to see such a range of players clashing with the outcomes so uncertain.
The tour has geographical breadth with players from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia all in the top 20 and with Ons Jabeur, 24, of Tunisia in the top 60 after last year, becoming the first Arab woman to reach a WTA final.
But there is another strong and too often undervalued selling point: stylistic variety. Though serious baseline power remains the most popular and fail-safe route to stardom, players with subtler, more creative games are also finding a way to win consistently, just as Radwanska, a former world No. 2 and Wimbledon finalist, did before her injuries.
Several of these tennis “artists” will be seeded at the Australian Open: No. 10 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, No. 13 Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, No. 15 Ashleigh Barty of Australia, and No. 28 Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan, a 33-year-old whose double-handed, frequently off-speed strokes are as crafty as they come. There is also Jabeur, still an outsider but whose game is a crowd-pleasing mix of baseline punch, feathery touch and Federer-esque flourishes.
“There will always be exceptions to the power players,” said Paul McNamee, the former Australian men’s star who advises Hsieh. “The players you refer to, however, all have one thing in common: exceptional hands. They have amazing touch, and this is why they can survive even if they have less raw power.”
That hardly means they have none. Barty, despite being 5-foot-5 and shorter than most of her rivals, generates the leg drive and racket-head speed to hit big serves and forehands. Her crisply sliced backhand has unusual bite, and she has perhaps the best net game in the sport.
“The plan to get to the net more often is a focus for 2019,” said Craig Tyzzer, her coach. “Ash certainly benefits from playing more doubles than most of the other singles girls, but her volley skills were certainly developed from an early age, which is a massive advantage.”
Kasatkina has a heavy topspin forehand that she can flatten out to create more pace when she requires it.
But what distinguishes the members of the WTA’s creative class from their peers is the size of their tool set and the range of their tactical options. Their success has meant more matchups that feature contrasting styles: important to the appeal of a game where patterns have a tendency to repeat.
“Tennis is a game of chess, of tactics,” said Philippe Dehaes, Kasatkina’s coach, who has emerged as one of the tour’s leading mentors and motivators. “You have to vary zones and trajectories and find the answer suited to what your opponent is doing. To have women who play well tactically and who can keep the ball in play, while varying and creating, makes the show much more interesting for people, in my opinion.”
It is not the contrast that tennis once regularly offered. When Martina Navratilova was attacking the net in the 1970s and 1980s against her baseline-hugging archrival Chris Evert and others, the gulf between styles and tennis philosophies was much wider.
“When you had serve-and-volleyers going against baseliners, that was more of a complete and obvious contrast,” said Tracy Austin, the precocious champion who faced Navratilova frequently. “But in this day and age where the game has become homogenized, we’re looking for any contrast. It’s not as extreme as it used to be, but that’s why Hsieh Su-wei is fun to watch, because you feel like you can see the wheels turning in her mind as to where to place the ball, the geometry of the court. So many players use left and right, and she uses north and south as well.”
Hsieh is constantly changing depth: shifting her target from the backcourt to the forecourt as she mixes in drop shots, angled volleys and sliced and flat groundstrokes.
“Her hands can redirect a shot in either direction on both wings with pinpoint accuracy,” McNamee said. “That’s not normal.”
But outlier fast-twitch defensive skills are required to thrive in an era of abundant power and athleticism, of taller, stronger opposition with superior leverage like Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys and the ascendant Aryna Sabalenka.
“I try to do something else than the normal,” said Sevastova, a U.S. Open semifinalist last year whose trademark is the drop shot. “I think it’s important, and it’s my style. It’s not like I don’t have power. I just don’t have that much. But I can handle their pace and hit the ball quickly, and I like variety.”
Dehaes sees more women being able to survive the onslaught.
“I think that has always been the case, but in the last few years we saw it a bit less,” he said. “I think the equipment played a big role, and there was the evolution of women’s tennis with players becoming stronger physically and better technically. Because everyone trains a lot and everyone trains well, which was not always the case in former times. So with more athletic players and more high-performance equipment, the pace of the game accelerated. But I think now the girls are getting used to it and are more able to counter the games of these super-powerful players.”
Tennis’s recent honor roll confirms that. Three of the four Grand Slam singles titles last year went to counterpunchers: the No. 1 player, Simona Halep, and Kerber and Wozniacki, all of whom have long had speed and defensive skills, but who also have focused on improving their serves and learning to embrace risk selectively.
“Honestly, it could be just 15 percent more aggression that can make the difference,” Austin said. “You are just robbing your opponent of a little bit of time on certain shots.”
Martin Blackman, general manager of player development at the United States Tennis Association, says he believes that “we will see more and more complete players on the women’s side.”
Purer power players are also trying to broaden their range. In her late teens, Osaka clearly had potent groundstrokes and a penetrating serve. But she did not make the leap to Grand Slam champion until she lost weight in 2018 and improved her explosive movement, agility and defensive skills with help from her new coach, Sascha Bajin, and her fitness coach, Abdul Sillah.
“She’s pulled back some; Sascha’s got her thinking more on the court rather than just see ball, hit ball,” Austin said. “Now, she’s fit enough and aware enough and realizes, ‘O.K., this is a red-light ball. I have to get the point back to neutral.’ Or ‘this is a green-light ball, and I can go big.’”
The artists are also at work on finding the time to use their brushes.
“My challenge with Dasha,” said Dehaes, using Kasatkina’s nickname, “is to help her find a way to stay in the rally even under great pressure, and at a certain moment, the right moment, make the difference with a variation. But it’s not easy to vary when you play someone like Sabalenka, who hits every ball very hard from everywhere without much theory. It’s very hard to counter this kind of woman.”
Perhaps impossible when a true power player is on target.
“If you have Serena and she’s at the top of her game, I still say that power is always going to win,” Austin said. “I don’t know if Sabalenka is 10 to 15 percent away from that top level or maybe just two weeks away, but when she’s all cylinders firing, I still think she’s going to take out the Kasatkinas, the Sevastovas, the Bartys. But let me tell you. If you’re off a little bit and your timing is messed up a little bit by those combinations — topspin, slice, short, deep — it’s a whole new ballgame.”