The 2021 tennis season starts in several days time, so our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, picks out 10 WTA players to watch in the coming year...
"Tauson has won titles at that level on clay and indoors, suggesting a balanced game capable of picking up ranking points across various surfaces, and her service numbers (winning over 62% of serve points in ITFs last year) suggest she’s already likely to be an above-average server at WTA level. I’m expecting big things from her this year."
Swiatek the highlight of last year's predictions
Last year, I picked out 10 young WTA players to watch for the 2020 season and our headline player, Iga Swiatek, eclipsed even my high expectations with a stunning French Open victory which helped her improve her ranking from 60 to 17 by the end of the season. Of the 10 players listed, six improved their ranking and only one player dropped more than five spots in what was a unique and difficult season on the tour. Five players improved double-digit figures, with Swiatek (43 spots) and the Italian, Elisabetta Cocciaretto (46) having the biggest ranking boost.
As is frequently the case, there are numerous players of high potential starting to break through on the WTA Tour, and I've picked out another 10 players to keep an eye on during the coming year - all different to the players listed last year, many of whom still retain a high level of future upside.
Tauson with very high future potential
Clara Tauson - Rank 152, Age 18, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 110.0%.
Tauson, who turned 18 towards the end of December, still is ranked outside the top 150 but looks set for a big improvement in 2021 as she starts to play more main tour events. The Danish talent made a statement at the French Open, beating Jennifer Brady in the first round, backing up a superb level exhibited in lower-level ITF events.
Tauson has won titles at that level on clay and indoors, suggesting a balanced game capable of picking up ranking points across various surfaces, and her service numbers (winning over 62% of serve points in ITFs last year) suggest she's already likely to be an above-average server at WTA level. I'm expecting big things from her this year.
Bouzkova without Slam ranking points to defend
Marie Bouzkova, Rank 52, Age 22, 2020 WTA combined service/return points won 100.9%.
Bouzkova is currently ranked just outside the top 50, having recently got to a career high of 46, but she has the potential to kick on further given that she has barely any ranking points to defend in big tournaments after three first-round exits in Grand Slams last season. She has a solid serve, holding 68% on the main tour in 2020, and defeated the likes of Petra Kvitova and Jo Konta last season on her preferred hard court. She also reached the final of Monterrey in March (also on hard court) where she lost a close three-setter to Elina Svitolina.
Leylah Fernandez - Rank 88, Age 18, 2020 WTA combined service/return points won 100.8%.
In her WTA main tour matches in 2020, Fernandez is already showing greater than a 100% combined mark, suggesting that she's under-ranked at this stage of her career with future potential to improve her current rank just inside the top 100.
She reached the third round of the French Open several months ago, with her run featuring good wins over Polona Hercog and Magda Linette as underdog on both occasions, and also was runner-up in a main tour final in Acapulco in February as well.
Kostyuk's return game illustrating huge potential
Ann Li - Rank 98, Age 20, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 106.7%.
Li finished her 2020 season off positively, winning an ITF event in Tyler with good wins over strong opposition such as Marta Kostyuk (detailed below), Clara Tauson and Gretje Minnen, and also impressed at the US Open, where she defeated the much higher-ranked Alison Riske 6-0 6-3 before a creditable display in defeat to Angelique Kerber in the third round. Having just broken into the top 100, Li's strong return game can give opposition players problems - she broke opponents almost 50% of the time in ITFs in 2020.
Marta Kostyuk - Rank 99, Age 18, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 111.6%.
Kostyuk's huge potential is illustrated by excellent performance levels at ITF level last year, where she crushed the serve of many opponents, winning over 54% of return points. So far, she hasn't translated that potential to the main tour, with her showing underperformance on break point chances on return, but assuming this mean-reverts I would expect her to show big improvement, with all-court ability, in 2021 on the main WTA Tour.
Kostyuk finished 2020 well, reaching back-to-back finals in October in ITFs (losses to Ann Li and CiCi Bellis) and also pushed Naomi Osaka to three sets at the US Open in September.
Bellis capable of recovering ranking following injury
Ludmilla Samsonova - Rank 127, Age 22.
Samsonova has produced good numbers in main tour qualifiers in 2020, with strong serve numbers suggesting she could be a solid server at main tour level, particularly on harder courts. She reached the final in the Reims ITF event in her last tournament of the season, and took Sofia Kenin to three sets at the French Open several months ago. While she's yet to really break through to the main tour, her losses have generally been against strong opposition so some kinder draws could see her pick up more wins in the 2021 season.
CiCi Bellis - Rank 133, Age 21, 2020 WTA combined service/return points won 99.7%.
Some readers may be surprised to read that Bellis is still only 21 years of age, having reached a previous high ranking of 35 in 2017. Injuries have caused her career to stagnate to some extent, but her performances last year suggest that she can dramatically improve her ranking in 2021.
Bellis won the Macon ITF event in October, reached the quarter-finals of the main tour event in Lexington in August and also narrowly lost to top-10 Aryna Sabalenka in the Western & Southern Open after the tour resumed as well. If Bellis can rediscover her previous potential, she has the capability to end 2021 ranked inside the top 50, with further upside also possible.
Rakhimova, Aiava and Burel round off the list
Kamilla Rakhimova - Rank 155, Age 19, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 104.9%.
Rakhimova has achieved some solid results in ITFs, notably on hard/indoor hard courts, holding almost 70% of the time in the last two years.
While there's less evidence of clay ability in ITFs, she had an excellent win over Shelby Rogers at the French Open having qualified, and pushed Maria Sakkari to a tiebreak in round two. Rakhimova looks to be better than her current rank and I wouldn't be surprised to see her push towards the top 100 in the coming year.
Destanee Aiava - Rank 215, Age 20, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 107.5%.
The big-serving Aiava should be well-placed for a strong start to the season in her home country, Australia, after not playing any ranking events since the tour stopped in March last year - she only played Australian exhibition tournaments subsequently. However, between January and February, she reached a semi-final and two finals in hard court ITF events, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see her do well in some home hard court events to get her season started positively.
Clara Burel - Rank 236, Age 19, 2020 ITF combined service/return points won 104.2%.
Burel is an extremely return-orientated player, with currently mediocre serve numbers but superb return data - she won almost 50% of return points on the ITF Tour last year. The Frenchwoman reached the third round of the French Open with heavy underdog victories over Kaja Juvan (who was in last year's players to watch list) and Aranxta Rus, and she's also picked up an indoor title in Grenoble as well which suggests all-court ability - a very useful quality to continually pick up ranking points.
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