Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff finished this year as the three top-ranked players on the Hologic WTA Tour. They are supremely accomplished, breathtaking athletes who, considering their mastery, are also startlingly young.
With the title at the WTA Finals in Cancun, Swiatek finished the season in a fine flurry, regaining the No.1 ranking she lost after the US Open. The four-time major champion won’t turn 23 for another six months.
Sabalenka, who won her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open and became only the 29th woman to be ranked No.1, is 25 — an age when most people in the real world are still trying to find themselves.
Then there is Gauff, whose lights-out precocity has been increasingly evident since her junior days. She won the US Open at the tender age of 19.
Together, they won three of the year’s four majors and, collectively, 13 titles and more than $24 million. And yet, if you look closely enough — as Martina Navratilova has — all three still have ample room for improvement.
Navratilova was, relatively speaking, a late bloomer. She was two years older than Gauff when she won her first major, Wimbledon in 1978, and the same age as Swiatek is now, 22, when she repeated a year later at the All England Club. By the time she reached Sabalenka’s present age, 25, she still had 13 Grand Slam singles titles ahead of her.
Navratilova was a formidable player well into her mid-30s, finishing with a staggering 2,169 match victories in singles and doubles and took home a total of 344 titles. As an analyst for Tennis Channel and Amazon UK, she still follows the game closely.
Here are her suggested tweaks, a few wrinkles for the top three players to contemplate as they head into their offseason conditioning blocks.
She was the best player in 2022, highlighted by her 135-day, 37-match undefeated streak in which she won six consecutive titles. Swiatek finished with a record of 67-9 (.882), two major titles and eight overall. And then this year, she came through with an impressive sequel, winning her third Roland Garros title and the year-end championships earlier this month. Swiatek actually won one more match this year, going 68-12 (.850).
Most hard-court match-wins
1. ❓ – 43
2. Every Swiatek – 42
3. Coco Gauff – 39
Best first-serve winning percentage
1. ❓ – 73.7%
2. Elena Rybakina – 73.6%
3. Aryna Sabalenka – 72.9%
Find out the wins & serving stats leaders for 2023! 👀👇
— wta (@WTA) November 16, 2023
Navratilova’s tweaks: “It was amazing the way she came back after the US Open, where by her own admission she was tired. And then she pulls an 11-0 finish out of the hat. I hope she takes a good vacation and gets herself ready for next year. The thing I’d target is getting to the net. I mean, she’s gotten better but there’s still a long way to go on the volley front, particularly that first volley — the transition volley, which is probably the most difficult shot in the game.
“I think that’s where she can improve the most. Iga still has a tendency to run back to the baseline when she really should be going forward. And if she gets that going? Watch out. She can still get a few more mph on her serve, too. The groundstrokes are solid as a rock. And the drop shot — I think she had something like two drop shots all year. When she adds that and uses it at the right time — because with her topspin she really pushes people back behind the baseline — she’ll be even more deadly.”
After losing the championship match of last year’s WTA Finals in Fort Worth (a pair of double faults proved pivotal), Sabalenka came out quickly in 2023, winning titles in Adelaide, Melbourne and Madrid, in early May. She came close — losing in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the WTA Finals in Cancun and the US Open final — but never scored another title.
Navratilova’s tweaks: “At her best, Sabalenka can play you off the court with her powerful groundstrokes and serve. But I think she can still improve her movement a little bit, get quicker off the mark, find a little more explosion. She needs to focus on getting herself in position to hit those big balls — because when she’s set, she’s deadly. So, going forward, I think she can move up to the ball quicker, get a little bit higher on the trajectory so she gets a higher point of contact with the ball.
“Last year was a big one for Aryna; she really came a really long way in terms of maintaining her composure in difficult moments and the physical aspect, as well. She needs to keep that going. She’s the oldest of these three, but at 25 she’s still fairly young on the total commitment scale. It takes time to really reach your potential — and, believe it or not, she hasn’t reached it yet.”
We all saw her potential when she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon — at the age of 15. Four years later, in the span of six weeks, she more than fulfilled that promise, winning her first career WTA Tour 500 title, 1000 and Grand Slam.
Navratilova’s tweaks: “The next step for Coco? What happens with the forehand? Will she start hitting more forehands down the line or rolling it crosscourt? Late in the season, I noticed she was hitting those loopy forehands more often. I really look forward to what [coach] Brad [Gilbert] tries to do — if he tries to change the forehand and her extreme western grip. Because when she was trying to hit low balls with her [existing grip] the ball sometimes was bouncing before it got to the net.
“I think that’s where the grip is so limiting — it’s physically impossible to get under the ball when it’s that low with that grip. Change it to make it a little bit easier to hit those low balls — or maybe she just learns to re-grip and use a slightly different stroke. One of those two things has to happen because it’s just too much of a handicap — she misses too many balls when they’re really low.”