Feature | Tennis

U.S. women’s strength makes Tokyo 2020 race the ultimate rankings battle  

Serena Williams and Sofia Kenin seem to be in strong positions for Team USA’s six-member squad, but competition is fierce. Can Venus qualify, too? 

By Nick McCarvel ·

With 11 singles players in the top 50, Team USA is the current ace of women’s tennis.

But the nation’s prowess in the sport will create a mad dash to Tokyo 2020, with the official WTA rankings serving as the virtual team calculator.

The date of Monday, 7 June 2021 – the day following this year’s French Open – is the final cutoff, as set by the International Tennis Federation, which oversees the Olympic tennis event. Up to six athletes can qualify for each of the men’s and women’s tennis teams if they meet the ranking cutoff, including four in singles and two in doubles.

With 64 players set for the women’s singles event, the Americans have a plethora of options. Currently, they are led by 2020 Australian Open champ (and Roland Garros runner-up) Sofia Kenin at world No.4, while four-time Olympic gold medallist Serena Williams is second at No.10.

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The 2021 Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady (pictured above) has catapulted herself to third at No.13, while Rio 2016 Olympian and perennial powerhouse Madison Keys is fourth at No.19.

But each of Coco Gauff (No.38), Sloane Stephens (No.42) and Jessica Pegula (No.44) can’t be counted out, nor can four other top 50 Americans in the current singles rankings.

The WTA’s present ranking system works off of a two-year system (versus the normal 12-month calendar) due to the interruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Serena WILLIAMS

United States of America
Tennis
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Number of medals

4 Olympic medals

4

Olympic Games

4 Olympic Games

Serena’s drive for more gold... and what about Venus?

While Serena was once again stopped short at the Australian Open in February for a coveted, record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title, the 39-year-old has come close at six majors since returning from giving birth to daughter Olympia in September of 2017.

Williams lost in the semi-finals to eventual AO champ Osaka Naomi, following her final four defeat at the US Open last year, losing to Victoria Azarenka.

Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratolgou, told Olympic Channel late last year that winning another gold would make Williams “extremely happy” if it could happen in 2021.

While some speculation was made around Williams’ exit at the Australian Open, the American appeared in some of the best shape of the recent past, and all signs point to her playing a full calendar in the coming year.

The younger Williams sister won gold over Maria Sharapova at London 2012, while also teaming with sister Venus for doubles crowns at Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008 and London.

Can the sisters play together again in Tokyo? The answer is... maybe.

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What path does Venus have back to the Games?

The U.S. doesn’t have the same prowess in doubles as it does in singles, with Nicole Melichar (doubles No.11), Desirae Krawczyk (No.22) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands (No.23) as its top three doubles stars.

But the choice of doubles teams for the Games will likely come down to the U.S. Tennis Association, which will select a coach for the Games to lead the team. (In 2016, it was former top 10 player and Billie Jean King Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez for the women.)

Because Venus is now ranked No.76 in the world in singles, she would need to be chosen as Serena's doubles partner to play.

Kenin, meanwhile, appears primed to pair up with Mattek-Sands, the duo having played a fair amount together in 2019 and 2020, winning the 2019 China Open. Mattek-Sands won gold in mixed doubles in 2016, teaming up with Jack Sock.

Yes, lots of moving pieces to try and see the Williams sisters go for a historic fourth doubles gold together...

Jennifer Brady launches herself into contention

Ranked No.49 as recently as August of 2020, the 25-year-old Brady has had a mid-career surge, winning her first title at Lexington, making the US Open semis, then making a dash to the AO final, where she fell at the final hurdle to Osaka.

The 25-year-old Pennsylvania native changed coaches in late 2019 to work with Germany’s Michael Geserer, a switch that she says helped her believe she could play with the best of the best.

In August, Brady was the seventh-best American in the rankings and now finds herself safely at No.3, with more room for improvement over the next three months.

“I think I belong at this level. I think winning a Grand Slam is totally achievable,” -- Jennifer Brady to reporters after the Australian Open

“It's within reach. ... If you were to ask me maybe a year ago, I wouldn't think it's possible or it would feel like it's, like, going to Mars. I would say just being more comfortable at this level, yeah.”

Can Gauff or Pegula break through, too?

While Keys – who missed the Australian Open after testing positive for Covid-19 – is securely in fourth position at WTA No.19, she’s followed closely by Alison Riske (No.27), Amanda Anisimova (No.32), Danielle Collins (No.36) and Gauff at 38, all within the top 40.

Gauff reached a new career high this week (1 March) following her semi-final run at the Adelaide International. The 16-year-old made the second round of the Australian Open, and said last August she still has Olympic dreams – even if they are a longshot.

“(The Tokyo 2020 delay) definitely increases my chances a lot. I mean, the reasoning behind postponing, obviously I wouldn't want a pandemic to help that, but it definitely increases my chance as lot.” -- Coco Gauff on her Olympic chances

Big events between now and June 7 include Miami, Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome and – of course – the French Open, giving an outside shot to the likes of Stephens (No.42), Pegula (44) or Shelby Rogers (49).

Pegula, the Australian Open quarter-finalist, launched herself from No.61 at the start of the tournament to her current career high, showing that a last-minute leap before the Tokyo cutoff is a reality for any of the American women.

Watch this space.

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