Who would have picked world No.47 Jelena Ostapenko and world No.31 Timea Bacsinszky to be playing off in a French Open semifinal tonight?
Sure, it seems like an unlikely match-up, but the truth is the women’s game is incredibly unpredictable right now (and that’s not just because of the absence of 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams either).
Remarkably, the French Open marks the 16th consecutive Grand Slam where at least one of the women’s singles semifinalist is making her debut at that stage.
That’s four years of surprise results and major breakthroughs. A women’s game in transition? Perhaps… or is unpredictability the new order?
During that time, 33 different women have advanced to a Grand Slam semifinal and as Ostapenko celebrates her 20th birthday today, she becomes the 18th different woman to reach a first Grand Slam semifinal since the surprising run of Belgian Kirsten Flipkens at Wimbledon in 2013.
Serena Williams is the only player to have made five or more semifinals during the past four years (with 11 final four appearances netting seven titles). The next best performers are Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska with four each. Maria Sharapova has made three, while Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova have one apiece.
Unexpected semifinalists in this period have included: a No.83-ranked Flavia Pennetta at the 2013 US Open, a No.35-ranked 19-year-old Madison Keys at Australian Open 2015, China’s Shuai Peng at the US Open in 2014 as the world No.39, Italian veteran Roberta Vinci in New York in 2015 when she was ranked No.43, and last year at Roland Garros when No.58-ranked Kiki Bertens advanced to the final four.
Let’s not forget that only a few months ago then-world No.35 CoCo Vandeweghe made the Australian Open semifinals, as did No.79-ranked 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who surprised the tennis world, and herself, with her best performance since reaching the same stage as a teenager at Wimbledon 1999.
The lack of predictability is clear when comparing the semifinal line-ups from the past 16 Grand Slam events (italics = champion, bold = first-time Grand Slam semifinalist):
|Wimbledon 2013||Sabine Lisicki||Agnieszka Radwanska||Marion Bartoli||Kirsten Flipkens|
|US Open 2013||Serena Williams||Li Na||Flavia Pennetta||Victoria Azarenka|
|Australian Open 2014||Eugenie Bouchard||Li Na||Dominika Cibulkova||Agnieszka Radwanska|
|French Open 2014||Maria Sharapova||Eugenie Bouchard||Simona Halep||Andrea Petkovic|
|Wimbledon 2014||Eugenie Bouchard||Simona Halep||Lucie Safarova||Petra Kvitova|
|US Open 2014||Serena Williams||Ekaterina Makarova||Shuai Peng||Caroline Wozniacki|
|Australian Open 2015||Serena Williams||Madison Keys||Ekaterina Makarova||Maria Sharapova|
|French Open 2015||Serena Williams||Timea Bacsinszky||Ana Ivanovic||Lucie Safarova|
|Wimbledon 2015||Serena Williams||Maria Sharapova||Garbine Muguruza||Agnieszka Radwanska|
|US Open 2015||Serena Williams||Roberta Vinci||Flavia Pennetta||Simona Halep|
|Australian Open 2016||Serena Williams||Agnieszka Radwanska||Angelique Kerber||Johanna Konta|
|French Open 2016||Serena Williams||Kiki Bertens||Garbine Muguruza||Samantha Stosur|
|Wimbledon 2016||Serena Williams||Elena Vesnina||Angelique Kerber||Venus Williams|
|US Open 2016||Serena Williams||Karolina Pliskova||Caroline Wozniacki||Angelique Kerber|
|Australian Open 2017||CoCo Vandeweghe||Venus Williams||Mirjana Lucic-Baroni||Serena Williams|
|French Open 2017||Jelena Ostapenko||Timea Bacsinszky||Simona Halep||Karolina Pliskova|
How does that compare to the men’s tour?
The difference is pronounced:
|Wimbledon 2013||Novak Djokovic||Juan Martin del Potro||Jerzy Janowicz||Andy Murray|
|US Open 2013||Novak Djokovic||Stan Wawrinka||Richard Gasquet||Rafael Nadal|
|Australian Open 2014||Rafael Nadal||Roger Federer||Tomas Berdych||Stan Wawrinka|
|French Open 2014||Rafael Nadal||Andy Murray||Ernests Gulbis||Novak Djokovic|
|Wimbledon 2014||Novak Djokovic||Grigor Dimitrov||Roger Federer||Milos Raonic|
|US Open 2014||Novak Djokovic||Kei Nishikori||Marin Cilic||Roger Federer|
|Australian Open 2015||Novak Djokovic||Stan Wawrinka||Tomas Berdych||Andy Murray|
|French Open 2015||Novak Djokovic||Andy Murray||Jo-Wilfried Tsonga||Stan Wawrinka|
|Wimbledon 2015||Novak Djokovic||Richard Gasquet||Andy Murray||Roger Federer|
|US Open 2015||Novak Djokovic||Marin Cilic||Stan Wawrinka||Roger Federer|
|Australian Open 2016||Novak Djokovic||Roger Federer||Milos Raonic||Andy Murray|
|French Open 2016||Novak Djokovic||Dominic Thiem||Stan Wawrinka||Andy Murray|
|Wimbledon 2016||Milos Raonic||Roger Federer||Tomas Berdych||Andy Murray|
|US Open 2016||Novak Djokovic||Gael Monfils||Stan Wawrinka||Kei Nishikori|
|Australian Open 2017||Roger Federer||Stan Wawrinka||Rafael Nadal||Grigor Dimitrov|
|French Open 2017||Andy Murray||Stan Wawrinka||Rafael Nadal||Dominic Thiem|
Unsurprisingly there are five names that have dominated this period in the men’s game, led by Novak Djokovic with 12 semifinal appearances (winning six titles). Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have made nine, just ahead of Roger Federer with eight. Rafael Nadal has featured in five.
Only seven men have made a Grand Slam semifinal breakthrough during this time and perhaps most tellingly, Dominic Thiem is the only one to do so in the past 10 events.
As for surprise semifinalists? Only two players really fit into this category, and even then they were seeded at the events. They are: Pole Jerzy Janowicz, who was ranked No.22 when he reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2013, and Latvian Ernests Gulbis who made the final four at Roland Garros in 2014 as the world No.17.
Another telling statistic is that during the past four years there has been 18 women make only one semifinal, compared to five men.
|In the past 16 Grand Slam events…||Men||Women|
|Players to reach a Grand Slam semifinal||17||33|
|Players reaching first Grand Slam semifinal||7||18|
|Players reaching five or more semifinals||5||1|
|Players reaching only one semifinal||5||18|
The numbers don’t lie – the women’s game is clearly much more unpredictable than the men’s right now.
Oh, and the potentially bad news for Ostapenko as she enjoys her Grand Slam breakthrough? Only five of the first-time semifinalists (including both men and women) in this period reached a final at that event, and none won the title.
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