The End of an Era: Serena Williams’ pregnancy and those who will attempt to fill the vacuum

Since the Millennium, one name has dominated professional women’s tennis. The name Serena Williams has become synonymous for sporting success with 23 Grand Slam singles titles securing her legendary status within the history of the women’s game. If she’s not winning a tournament that she’s competing in, it’s a surprise. Compared against other extremely talented women’s tennis players of the same era such as Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova, Williams has dominated on an unprecedented scale, marking her out as a ground-breaking sportswoman who should be considered greater than her male compatriots.

But having announced that she is pregnant with her first child this week with her fiancée Alexis Ohanian, it appears that Serena’s time at the peak of women’s tennis is finally drawing to a close. Even if she does return to professional competition, an eventually unlikely to occur before May 2018 at the earliest, Serena will have trouble matching the form of her earlier career, as injuries, ageing and family considerations will impact upon her play. But for a women’s game that has come be dominated by one player (39 major titles in singles and doubles), it is difficult to see who is going to step up and dominate the women’s game in the near future. For sure, there are many talented women’s players who have been there or there about since the turn of the decade, but for players such as Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska this has resulted in not a single major title, whereas others such as Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Murguruza have picked up the odd title on favoured surfaces, but have failed to overhaul Serena across all four surfaces.

Looking at the current rankings, the players listed above are still very much in contention for the world number one spot (indeed, Angelique Kerber currently holds the position) but to make it theirs in the same way Serena did looks like an improbability. Even when Victoria Azarenka returns after the birth of her son, and Petra Kvitova recovers from the traumatic home invasion in which she sustained hand injuries, it appears there will be greater variety at the top of the women’s game, which will likely make the tournaments more exciting and unpredictable, but will suffer with the loss of Serena. So who are the candidates to dominate women’s tennis in the next five years?

Simona Halep

A one-time French Open finalist who has also reached at least the quarter-final stage in the other three Grand Slams, Simona Halep is a very different player to Williams in that her movement around the court and her variety are her core weapons. Nonetheless, on her game, Halep is a very dangerous player who tires opponents out, even if she sometimes lacks real power on her groundstrokes. Currently ranked fifth in the world, Halep would benefit from moving up the rankings a couple of places to secure easier routes through the draws of this year’s remaining Grand Slams, but is already well placed to mount a charge with Serena absent.

Victoria Azarenka

Although not currently playing, Azarenka intends to return to competitive tennis this summer, six months on from giving birth to Leo. Azarenka is one of the few players who has been able to beat Williams on multiple occasions previously (although their head-to-head record is still 17 – 4 in Serena’s favour). Her playing style is also one of the closest to Williams’ on the women’s tour, using aggressive baseline strokes to weaken her opponents. Azarenka also has four Grand Slam titles under her belt (two singles, two doubles) and has reached the semi-finals is every Grand Slam tournament during her career. What impact having a child will have can only be conjecture at this point, although it seemed to advantage Kim Clijsters, who won three Grand Slams after the birth of her first child. What is more certain though is that Azarenka will win more titles, the question is how many?

Garbine Muguruza

Muguruza is a relative newcomer to the elite level of women’s tennis, having won her sole Grand Slam title at the French Open in 2016 having got to the Wimbledon final the year before that. Her playing style is amongst the most attractive on tour, but the power she generates in her groundstrokes often is mirrored by inconsistency that has seen her lose to opponents ranked well below her (such as to the Qualifier Jana Cepelova in the Second Round at last year’s Wimbledon). If she can find form on hard courts, she could be a contender for the no. 1 ranking, but she’ll need to be more decisive to achieve this.

Petra Kvitova

Another Grand Slam winner, and one with a respectable record against both Azarenka at Grand Slams, Petra Kvitova is another player who may benefit from Williams’ absence. Although currently absent from the sport, Kvitova is looking to return for this year’s French Open and will be hoping to recreate her dangerous serve that has long been a core element of her game. Although it will no doubt take her time to bed back in following hand surgery, if she can add mental toughness to her game as it was before Christmas, she will have a very good chance of adding to her Grand Slam haul in the future.

Angelique Kerber

The current World Number One and a two-time Grand Slam winner who favours hard courts, Kerber is not known for her devastating groundstrokes, but for her defensive tenacity and mobility on court. Having experienced success in Grand Slams against Williams, Azarenka, Kvitova and Halep, Kerber is a resolute competitor and late developer who had her best season to date in 2016 and will be looking to build upon it.

Maria Sharapova 

Probably the second most consistent player on the women’s tour still playing after Serena since the turn of the century (with five Grand Slam singles titles), but also the player with the most baggage following her suspension for taking Meldonium in March 2016. That suspension finishes this month and it will likely take Sharapova time to get up to speed after so long out of the game, but she is a proven winner who is likely to be given wild cards at this year’s majors in part due to Serena’s absence. A further factor that will count against her though is her relative age, as at 30, she is older than all other players on this list.

The wildcard: Dominika Cibulkova

The current World Number Four and a popular player following her the charge to the quarter-finals at last year’s Wimbledon, Dominika Cibulkova is an outside bet for titles in Serena’s absence. With her energetic playing style and positive on-court temperament, Cibulkova is a fierce competitor who will not roll over easily against better known opponents although she does occasionally lose composure in the final stages of tournaments (such as losing the second and final set of 2014 Australian Open final to Li Na, 6-0). But with more experience she may yet become a Grand Slam winner, as at 27, she still has many tournaments ahead of her.

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