As the World No 1 Iga Swiatek resumes training after withdrawing from the Miami Open due to injury, some other big names are notable because of their absence from the WTA Tour, namely Garbiñe Muguruza, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep.
Spending time with family and friends and it's really been healthy and amazing, so I am going to lengthen this period till summer. Therefore I am going to miss [the] clay and grass season. Garbiñe Muguruza
Swiatek took to social media to announce she is ‘back at it’ alongside an image of her on an exercise bike.
The 21-year old lost to Elena Rybakina in the semi-final of Indian Wells, hampered by a rib injury sustained through coughing arising from a virus she picked up in Doha, and she missed Miami, nor will she be playing the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers on 14 April.
The good news is that Swiatek plans to return for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, where she is the defending champion and which starts in Stuttgart on 17 April.
Former World No 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Muguruza, however, won’t be seen again until well after Wimbledon at the earliest, as the 29-year old has opted to take an extended break from tennis that will keep her away from both the clay and grass court seasons.
The Spaniard, who won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017, has played only 4 matches this year, and lost all of them.
Her last was in February at the Lyon Open, where she fell to Czech teenager Linda Noskova in the 1st-round.
She was scheduled to play at the inaugural Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open in February, but withdrew on the eve of the tournament citing ‘personal reasons’, and has now decided to miss both the Grand Slams where she won her two major titles.
“Spending time with family and friends and it’s really been healthy and amazing, so I am going to lengthen this period till summer,” Muguruza, who is now ranked 132, wrote on Instagram. “Therefore I am going to miss [the] clay and grass season.”
Muguruza reached the top of the WTA Tour rankings in September 2017, but has experienced plenty of inconsistency, slipping to No 18 by the end of the 2018 season before dropping further to 36 in 2019, but began to climb back up in 2020 to finish the year at 15.
The Spaniard was firmly back amongst the elite in 2021, though, ending the year ranked No 3 after winning 3 titles, including the WTA Finals title, but she then struggled throughout 2022, when she failed to get beyond the quarter-finals at any event, resulting in a drop to outside the top 50, and she is now ranked No 132.
While Muguruza seems to indicate she will re-appear for the North American hard court swing in the autumn, there is speculation that the Spaniard may have lost her enthusiasm for the rigours of the tour, much like Ash Barty did, who retired suddenly 14 months ago as the World No 1, having won the Australian Open, her 3rd major title.
Meanwhile, two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist Elina Svitolina has returned to the tour after an absence of some 13 months, during which she gave birth to a baby daughter, Skaii, in October.
After losing to Heather Watson in Miami last year, Svitolina stepped away citing mental health issues over the war in her homeland, Ukraine, and then taking maternity leave.
The former World No 3 played her first competitive match at the Charleston Open this week, narrowly losing to Yulia Putintseva in 3 sets after a close to 3-hour battle.
Currently ranked 1,081, Svitolina has spent her time away from the tour raising funds and awareness of the plight of Ukraine and its citizens.
“Physically, it was not easy for me,” Svitolina said after losing 6-7(3) 6-2 6-4 to the Russian-born Putintseva on the green clay.. “It showed, I think, that I’m not at my best, but I’m getting there.”
The 28-year old, who was given a warm welcome by fans and players, needed a wild-card to enter the main draw in Charleston, where she also led a fund-raiser for Ukraine on Sunday night.
With an eye on the French Open, Svitolina has decided to drop down to play two ITF events in Switzerland and Portugal over the coming weeks, where she will be the star attraction, before rejoining the main clay court season in Europe.
Elsewhere, Naomi Osaka, another former World No 1 and winner of 4 Grand Slam titles, has dropped to No 314 in the WTA rankings, her lowest ranking since July 2014.
The Japanese is currently pregnant and away from the tour, so is being impacted by her absence at last week’s Miami Open, where the 650 points she would have defended as last year’s finalist, after losing to Swiatek, have now fallen off this week, causing the significant drop in ranking.
The 25-year old has been off tour since September, having taken several mental health and injury breaks prior to this one.
Osaka says she is keen to return to the tour and has her eye on the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where she hopes to make amends for a lacklustre performance in Tokyo, but, like Muguruza and Barty, there are times when she looks as if she has little appetite for the fray.
Romania’s Simona Halep is said to be practising on clay, which, coupled with the news that her coach Patrick Mouratoglou has parted ways with Danish teenager Holger Rune, may indicate a potential return of the 31-year old, who has not played since testing positive for the banned substance, anti-anaemia drug Roxadustat, at last year’s US Open.
While reports suggest Halep has yet to bring her defence in front of a tribunal, it seems the Romanian’s doping ban is set to be dropped, and she seems to be planning a return to match-play soon.
The former World No 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion released a defiant statement on the day her suspension was confirmed, pleading her innocence, and describing the positive test as the ‘biggest shock’ of her life.
“The idea of cheating never even crossed my mind once, as it is totally against all the values I have been educated with,” she wrote. “Facing such an unfair situation, I feel completely confused and betrayed.
“I will fight until the end to prove that I never knowingly took any prohibited substance and I have faith that sooner or later, the truth will come out.”
Halep’s former coach Darren Cahill, who mentored the Romanian to her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 2018, has shown continuous support to his former player, releasing a statement at the time on Instagram: “Firstly, and most importantly, there is NO chance Simona knowingly or purposely took any substance on the banned list. None. Zero.
“She is an athlete that stressed about anything prescribed to her by a medical professional (which was rarely), or about any supplement that she used or considered.
“Simona wore out the words ‘please double check this, triple check this to make sure it’s legal, safe and permitted. If you are not sure, I’m not taking it’.”
In a recent appearance on The Big Deal podcast Cahill reinforced his previous statement: “I think a lot about Simona and I feel bad every time I think about the experiences she goes through.
“I made a statement about Simona Halep’s case and I’m willing to die next to those words because of her integrity and her DNA.
“There’s no way she’s cheating. She is a great woman and a great person. There’s no way she could have done the wrong thing. I wish her good luck.”
In December, it was reported that Halep had discovered that the source of the Roxadustat had come in a supplement that was incorrectly labelled.
“I understood they found the source of the contamination, not sure if it was in food or supplements, but they found out where it came from,” Cahill added. “I don’t have much news, but I understand there will be a hearing in February that will give her a chance to present her case.”
There have been no announcements about the result of the hearing since.
The impact of the absence of the big names on the WTA Tour, to which must be added the retirement of Serena Williams last year, and Venus Williams as a very occasional visitant, has allowed Eastern European women players to dominate, led by Poland’s Iga Swiatek, with Belarus’s Aryna Sabalenka and Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina in tow, and a flock of Russians in their wake.
The war in Ukraine, with its obvious problems, and pulling out of China because of the Peng Shuai affair has also affected the WTA’s bottom line, and the organisation recently sold off a 20 per cent stake in the tour’s commercial operations to private equity firm CVC, in an attempt to balance its books.
Now reports are beginning to circulate that the WTA is preparing to climb down from its stance on China, no doubt because of the huge commercial market that it represents.
With the exception of Romania’s Halep, the big names hail from relatively large markets, with Muguruza from Spain, Barty from Australia, Osaka from Japan and the Williams sisters from the USA, and it is an unfortunate reality that, while these nations offer more commercial opportunities than the former Eastern bloc, China is the bread-basket that drives the WTA’s aspirations of future expansion and raising prize money levels.