WTA Player of the Year…who is she? 2017 Season Summary (Opinion)

by Charles Friesen (Contributor)

No one dominated the WTA tour this year.

There were four different winners of the slam tournaments, a different player finished the year at #1 on the computer, a sixth player won the year ending WTA finals, a seventh player won the most tournaments this year, and an eighth player won the most prize money.  So who on earth is most deserving of player-of-the-year (POTY) honors?

2017 Season Summary

The year started off predictably enough with Serena Williams claiming the Australian Open.  It was her 23rd singles slam title, breaking the Open Era (since 1968) record she had shared with Steffi Graf (22), but still one behind the all-time record of Margaret Court (24).  But Serena’s opponent in the Aus final was unexpected – her sister, Venus Williams.  Venus hadn’t been in a slam final since 2009.

As it turned out, it was Serena’s last tournament of the year.  A short time later she announced she was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter during the US Open.

Elina Svitolina won the first of the nine 900/1000 level tournaments of the year at Dubai over Caroline Wozniacki.  The big spring US tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami were won by Elena Vesnina over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Johanna Konta over Wozniacki.  For both Vesnina and Konta this was the biggest tournament win of their careers so far, at the 900/1000 level, and the highlight of their seasons.

Clay Season

The clay season kicked off in earnest in Charleston with a glimpse of a possible future when 19-year olds Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko battled for the final.  Kasatkina won but it was a harbinger of bigger things to come for Ostapenko.

A great deal of controversy and ink was expended over the return of Maria Sharapova to competition play at the Porsche Championship in Stuttgart after 15 months of drug suspension.  She did well to make the semis, but the always-competitive tournament was taken by siege by the unheralded Laura Siegemund.  Siegemund had also made the semis of Charleston and seemed destined to make a late-career breakthrough at age 29.  Tragically she suffered a catastrophic knee injury just a month later and sat out the rest of the season.

Simona Halep picked up the sixth 900/1000 tournament of her career by taking Madrid over Kristina Mladenovic, who had also been runner-up in Stuttgart.  Halep next made the final in Rome but was out-gunned by Elina Svitolina, who picked up her second 900/1000 of the year.

Heading into the French Open at Roland Garros, Halep and Svitolina looked like marginal favorites over Mladenovic, and last year’s champ, Garbine Muguruza.  Sharapova was snubbed and denied a wildcard, amid much sniping.  But the return of Petra Kvitova to tournament play after a horrendous knife attack in her home last December was lauded and celebrated, especially after she won her first match.  Halep and Svitolina met in the quarters and Svitolina raced to a 6-3, 5-1 lead with victory looking assured.  But she faltered and Halep rolled off 12 of the next 13 games for an improbable six-love-in-the-third victory.

But the tables were turned on Halep in the final when she led Ostapenko 6-4, 3-0 but failed to close.    A 100:1 long shot at the start of the tournament, the victory by Ostapenko was a revelation.  Two days after her 20th birthday, she seized control of the final with fearless go-for-broke play, painting the lines with the entitlement of youth.

Grass Season

At Wimbledon the 13-month slumber of Muguruza finally ended as she steadily worked her way to a final round showing with the ageless Venus Williams.  That Williams had returned to the top echelon of the sport at age 37 was remarkable.  But Muguruza was too tough, and though she had not played a final of any description since her victory at the French last year, she claimed a second slam in her third final.

When Muguruza went on to claim the 900/1000 title in Cincinnati in August (over Halep), she became the warm favourite for POTY honours.  In the meantime, Svitolina went on to claim the 900/1000 in Toronto (over Wozniacki), her third title at that level this year, and fifth title overall for the year.

American Hardcourts

As the US Open dawned, the favorites looked to be Muguruza, Halep, Svitolina, and last year’s finalist Karolina Pliskova who had taken over the #1 ranking in July on the strength of three 2017 titles at the 470 point level and strong play in the latter half of 2016.  But the tournament started to look like the US Closed when Americans ripped through the draw and successfully occupied all four semi-final spots.

Sloane Stephens gave up only three games in the final to Madison Keys.  It capped a remarkable comeback that saw her ranking as low as #953 only two months before the USO.  She had taken nearly a year away from the game to heal a fracture in her foot and was in a walking boot only a few months earlier.  The other semi-finalists were Venus Williams, the only woman to make multiple slam finals during the year, and Coco Vandeweghe, who made the second slam semi of her career, and year, having made it that far in Melbourne.  Coco also made the quarters at Wimbledon in what has been a career year.

Asian Swing

The murky battle for #1 did not get much clearer in the fall.  Muguruza reached #1 after the US Open despite a middling round of 16 showing there.  But four weeks later, Halep finally seized the top spot by making the final in Beijing.  It was the fourth time during the year, Halep had been within a match of the #1 ranking, and this time she took it with a win, and then she held it for the rest of the year.

She lost the Beijing final however to Caroline Garcia, who stunned everyone including herself by claiming the last two 900/1000’s of the year, in consecutive weeks, at Wuhan and Beijing.  The run was enough to propel Garcia to the WTA Finals in Singapore, where she won two matches in the round robin to make the semis.  The other Wuhan finalist was Ashleigh Barty who returned to the tour this year after two years away.  Still only 21 years old, Barty made three finals this year, winning one 280 event and rising to a career-high ranking of 17.

WTA Finals

At the WTA Finals, it came down once again to Venus Williams in the final, this time against Wozniacki.  Venus made the final of the three of the five biggest tournaments of the year, and the semis of four of them, by far the most consistent record at the top tournaments.  But she failed to claim any titles this year and cannot be considered POTY.

Who is Player of the Year?

Almost as unsuccessful was Wozniacki.  She lost the first six finals she played this year but claimed the last two, including the WTA Finals, the biggest title of her career.  She finishes the year at #3 on the computer.  The fourth spot goes to Karolina Pliskova who was consistent throughout the year but did not make a showing on the biggest stages.  Venus finishes at #5, and Svitolina, who won a tour-leading five tournaments, gets the #6 spot.  Number 7 goes to Ostapenko.

The top two come down to Halep and Muguruza.  Although Halep is #1 on the computer and made five finals this year, many of them at the highest levels, she won only one of them.  So for me, player of the year goes to Muguruza who won one slam and one 900/1000, and was edged out of the top spot by only 40 computer points, about half a percent.

  • Charles is from Vancouver, he is the President of the Vancouver Tennis Association, and a lover and promoter of the sport of tennis.

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