Daniela Hantuchova says the likes of Iga Swiatek, Sofia Kenin and Naomi Osaka are taking over in women’s tennis

Who shall step up and assert themselves as frontrunners in the post-Serena Williams era has become a prominent talking point, and in 2020 the women’s tennis scene offered more than a mere peak into what looks a prospering future for the sport.

A then 21-year-old Sofia Kenin, who was named WTA Player of the Year in December, won her maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open to open the campaign, before 19-year-old Iga Swiatek exploded onto the scene by beating Kenin in the French Open final to become the first Polish Grand Slam singles champion in history.

And then Japan’s Naomi Osaka defeated Victoria Azarenka to win her second US Open title in New York to end a remarkable season.

  • Hantuchova: Osaka a wonderful inspiration in women’s tennis

The tour also saw 21-year-old Elena Rybakina collect her second WTA title in Hobart in January and finish runner-up at four other tournaments, while Aryna Sabalenka, 22, sealed three straight titles after opening 2021 with victory in Abu Dhabi to extend her winning streak to 15 matches.

Daniela Hantuchova, who won seven WTA tournaments and reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open during her career, carries few concerns over the apparent changing of the guard.

“I feel more confident about women’s tennis than I have in a long time I think,” Hantuchova told Sky Sports. “There have been so many inspirational stories and you kind of feel like the new generation is starting to take over.

“I was super impressed personally by Iga Swiatek, she’s my favourite with the way she plays and the way she thinks out there. It’s a combination of a lot of players in one.

“I believe she’s got a little bit from Martina Hingis, Agnieszka Radwański, Jennifer Capriati as far as her shot selection so we’re talking about somebody who I think is going to be around for quite some time as long as she can stay healthy.

“Obviously Naomi’s story has been incredible, Coco (Gauff) as well, she’s taking a little bit more time to fulfil her potential but she’s still got a bit of time. These are going to be exciting times for women’s tennis for sure.”

Swiatek was imperious at Roland Garros, losing just 28 games in seven matches as she capped an impressive campaign with a 6-4 6-1 victory over Kenin to become the lowest-ranked women ever to win the tournament and the youngest French Open women’s champion since Monica Seles in 1992.

The Polish teenager’s methodical and calculated deciphering of opponents proved a standout feature on her road to the final, which included a 6-1 6-2 statement against top seed Simona Halep.

“We’ve had so many powerful years where we saw a lot of strong players hit incredibly hard, but to see somebody that thinks so smart out there, has beautiful touch and anticipation, it reminded me a little bit of Ash Barty when she won in Roland Garros,” said Hantuchova.

“There is that nice variety that we had 20 years ago and then it kind of went missing, so it’s wonderful to see that back and I’m a huge fan of that in women’s tennis.”

On the other side, Hantuchova is anticipating a familiar look to the men’s game in regards to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer leading the way in the Grand Slam hunt.

Djokovic began 2020 by winning at the ATP Cup, Australian Open and Dubai Open, before receiving heavy criticism for staging the Adria Tour exhibition series last summer amid a pause in the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Having prevailed at the Cincinnati Masters upon the season’s resumption, the world No 1 was knocked out in the fourth round of the US Open and beaten by Nadal in the final of the French Open either side of victory at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, eventually finishing his year with a semi-final defeat to Dominic Thiem at the ATP Finals.

“I think he’s got the motivation and the hunger to win all four slams,” added Hantuchova. “I definitely felt at this time last year he was going to be unbeatable just because of the way he was playing.

“Nobody has a crystal ball so we can’t predict what’s going to happen but I think he’s super motivated and he’s putting all the right work in and doing all the right stuff off the court so let’s see what happens to him, to Rafa, to Roger. These guys aren’t going anywhere, so I think we can expect a lot of excitement from their side.”

  • Shriver: Osaka and Gauff have been leaders in difficult time
  • ‘Osaka a wonderful inspiration in women’s tennis’

The 2021 Australian Open is due to get started on February 8, with 72 players currently isolated in their hotel rooms after the return of positive cases on their inbound flights.

Hantuchova believes the tough conditions heading into the tournament could be defining, Spaniard Paula Badosa recently admitting hard quarantine had been “far and away” the worst experience of her career.

“I think in Melbourne everyone is hoping Ash Barty can do something special in front of her home crowd, she’s been away though for quite a long time so it will be quite interesting to follow her journey because it’s never easy to come back after such a layoff,” she said.

“Some of the girls I followed in the pre-season all seemed to be working incredibly hard. I also think it’s going to be about who mentally can handle this quarantine time the best way.

“At the ATP Finals in London we heard the guys say how mentally exhausting it is and I can’t even imagine how hard it is for the players to make all those adjustments. I think at the end of the day it’s going to be about who is mentally the strongest.”

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