As the ATP Tour prepares to stage the world's biggest indoor event in Paris, the stars of the WTA begin a decisive week in Mexico. From the group stage to the final, there is plenty on the line for the season’s top eight players (except the injured Karolina Muchova, who is replaced by Maria Sakkari), all of whom are highly motivated to complete a particularly successful 2023 campaign.
WTA Finals: who will succeed Caroline Garcia?
The top eight players in the world will go head-to-head in Cancun in the season-ending championship.
Sabalenka - Swiatek, Game of Thrones (Episode 4)
On the eve of the WTA Finals, the talk is once again about which of the two will come out on top. Having already been a hot topic at this year’s Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, the WTA's most popular soap opera took a new turn at Flushing Meadows in September. Aryna Sabalenka, who had been Iga Swiatek’s closest pursuer for a long time, took full advantage of her rival's round-of-16 defeat to become the 29th player in history to sit atop the world rankings.
It was a richly deserved moment for a player who has been steadily improving in recent seasons, not least mentally. Victorious this year in Adelaide, at the Australian Open and in Madrid, she also reached the final of the US Open and the semis at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon. A record of 23 wins to only 3 losses in Slams this year was always going to push her towards the summit. "Becoming world No.1 is an accomplishment and a great achievement," she said after the year’s final Grand Slam. “I'm really proud of myself, because it’s all those years of hard work that have allowed me to attain this goal. While it's nice to be able to say I've done it, I'd really like to finish the year as world No.1. That's why I’m staying positive and motivated.”
The current pack leader looks well placed to consolidate her position. Runner-up at last year’s edition in Fort Worth, she is currently 630 points ahead of Swiatek, the only player who can still dislodge her from top spot. To do that, however, the year’s most successful player (with titles in Doha, Stuttgart, Roland-Garros, Warsaw and Beijing, and a season’s-best 63 match-wins) will have to do better – possibly much better – than Sabalenka in Cancun.
It's nonetheless an exciting prospect, as she confided after her victory earlier this month in Beijing. "If I were to become world No.1 again, I think I'd be better prepared for everything," she said. “I'm not saying I'd change some things, but I'd know how to handle them. If I learn and draw lessons from my first experience, it’ll be easier. But obviously, the first thing I have to do is get back there, which is what I'm going to try to do.”
Guaranteed not to meet before the semis (Aryna got the better of Iga at precisely that stage last year), the pair may need to consult their calculators after each match according to this detailed analysis of all the scenarios by the WTA. But without getting into all the permutations, if Sabalenka reaches the final in Cancun, even with a record of two wins and one loss in the group stage, she will remain world No.1.
Who will take the last place on the podium?
Earlier this year, the concept of a WTA "Big Three" of Sabalenka, Swiatek and Elena Rybakina was beginning to take hold. However, over the course of a season that has seen some spectacular showdowns between the trio, albeit without any player dominating, the idea has been roundly challenged by others with equal ambition. Indeed, several players who had hitherto been in the wings have shown how comfortable they are centre stage with a series of flawless performances.
If Marketa Vondrousova's surprising run to Wimbledon glory did not entirely shake up the established order, the same cannot be said for Coco Gauff's American summer. A champion in Washington (her first WTA 500 title), Cincinnati (her first WTA 1000) and of course at the US Open (her first Grand Slam), the 19-year-old Atlanta native has certainly justified the high hopes placed in her as a teenage prodigy several years ago. A disappointing first-round exit at Wimbledon at the hands of Sofia Kenin was the catalyst for change for this protégé of Brad Gilbert and Pere Reba, who has won 22 of her last 24 matches.
With just a slender 90-point lead over fourth-placed Rybakina, Gauff will need to continue her recent good form in Cancun, where she will also be competing in the doubles with Jessica Pegula. That said, the prospect of finishing the season as world No.3 in singles and No.1 in doubles cannot but be an incentive for the circuit’s latest superstar.
No Slam but maybe the final word?
Keen to retake her place on the podium, Elena Rybakina will be hoping to build on an already very successful season by lifting the last major trophy of the year. An Australian Open finalist and champion in Indian Wells and Rome, she also reached the final of the Miami Open, losing out to Petra Kvitova. Impressive at the year’s big events and against her fellow heavyweight (6 wins and 2 losses against the Top 10 in 2023), she seems perfectly suited to the format of these WTA Finals, which she is playing for the first time.
The upcoming meeting of the game’s best players is one that Ons Jabeur almost missed. World No.2 this time last year, the Tunisian again showed her fighting skills to secure her Cancun ticket at the late-season Asian events. Weakened by a knee injury at the beginning of the campaign and then distraught to lose a second successive Wimbledon final this year, the "Minister of Happiness" will be hoping to do better than on her WTA Finals debut last year. Twelve months ago in Forth Worth, she exited the competition at the group stage, beaten by Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari. And while victory in Cancun would not fully atone for her disappointment at the All England Club, lifting the trophy on 5 November could be another giant step towards her ultimate Grand Slam goal.
Sakkari – destiny calling?
A semi-finalist last year after winning all three of her group matches, Maria Sakkari has struggled to go deep in tournaments on a regular basis this season. Her frustration was not helped by a string of poor performances in Grand Slams, losing in the first round at her last three attempts, including at the US Open, where she sounded disillusioned in her post-match press conference. However, a champion never gives up, and "Sakkattack" bounced back to experience the happiest moment of her career with victory last month in Guadalajara. Her maiden WTA 1000 title ended a four-year title drought (Rabat in 2019) as well as six-match losing streak in finals, providing a timely boost to her confidence and aspirations for a place in Cancun.
Currently ranked 9th in the world, she was obviously disappointed to initially miss out. However, this week, she was called up by the organizers in place of Karolina Muchova, who withdrew with a recurring right-wrist injury. With her frustration gone and nothing to lose in a country where she’s had considerable success already this year, it could be the ideal setting for the Greek star to shine.