Tennis moves so quickly. Players can begin the year in the wilderness and end it hunting the elite ranks.
Nothing is guaranteed though. A good season can easily be followed by a drop-off as players lose the benefit of sneaking up on the competition.
Only time will tell whether the following six women can keep building on what they achieved this year. Success brings pressure, though it’s the kind of pressure plenty of other players would kill for.
These are the up-and-coming women we think you should keep an eye on. A similar piece on the men will follow later in the week.
Mirra Andreeva, 16, Russia
Andreeva said she had a long talk with herself after her blow-up at the French Open against Coco Gauff, when she gave up a one-set lead and was lucky she didn’t get defaulted after swatting a ball in anger into the crowd. This was not going to happen again.
But then she sort of blew up again as another match she was leading, in the round of 16 against Madison Keys at Wimbledon, slipped away. The umpire ruled she threw her racket and assessed a point penalty, giving Keys match point. Andreeva claimed the racket slipped out of her hand. She lost both the argument and the match.
These things happen when you are 16 and mere months into playing in top-tier matches on the WTA Tour. It should do nothing to diminish the excitement over Andreeva, who has proven to be one of the brightest lights and biggest new attractions in women’s tennis.
It started in Madrid, where she beat Leylah Fernandez and two top-20 players to make the round of 16, while also taking a few moments to ogle Andy Murray, who was even more beautiful in real life, she said.
Imagine how good she will be when she gets her eyes fixed, Murray quipped.
When she is on, Andreeva is never out of a point, chasing down balls in every corner of the court, switching from defense to offense with a flicked forehand on the run. Off the court, she can be sarcastic and self-deprecating in her third language. Oh, how the chemistry homework tortures her, she said, gaining the empathy of 16-year-olds everywhere. Alas, Andreeva’s days of online schooling will soon come to an end.
Gauff may have blitzed her in the second round of the U.S. Open, but Andreeva, who is the youngest player in the top 50, keeps notching quality wins, most recently over Barbora Krejcikova at the China Open.
Alycia Parks, 22, USA
At the end of last year, Alycia Parks threw herself a different kind of party, not to celebrate what she had accomplished last year, but to celebrate that she was going to have a good year this year. That was two months before the year even started. The power of positive thinking, perhaps.
That might have seemed presumptuous for someone outside the top 100, but in February the party seemed prescient. That is when she won the Lyon Open, serving Caroline Garcia, the hometown favorite, off the court when it counted most.
“My standards for myself are very high, expectations are very high for myself,” she said in an interview a few weeks later. “It wasn’t a shock for me. It was more of like, finally Alycia, like I know you can do it and you’re now doing it.”
Parks can crack a serve and whip a forehand with the best of them when she is in her groove, but she knows she needs to learn how to find that groove week in and week out. She struggled to win through the spring and summer, though she and Taylor Townsend won the doubles title at the Cincinnati Masters.
With a serve that can regularly climb beyond 120mph, there are plenty of free points out there. Now it’s a matter of seeing if she can find more of them.
Zheng Qinwen, 21, China
It was just a few weeks ago that Zheng Qinwen told the world how she had cried after Wim Fissette, her coach of just three months, had dumped her for an old client with a shinier resume.
Fissette was with Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, during some of her biggest moments and with Osaka preparing for a return from maternity leave in 2024, she had asked Fissette to guide her once more.
Zheng understood that part. What she didn’t understand was the way Fissette had sort of blamed her for his decision, telling her he had never felt a connection with her, even as she made a run to the quarter-finals of the U.S. Open a little more than two months into their partnership. There was not a trace of any of those sentiments during a news conference Fissette gave during the second week of the U.S. Open, where he spoke of getting to know Zheng as both a person and a player, of guiding her to pick the right moments to turn up the aggression, which is his trademark.
Zheng soaked it all in and clearly treasured their budding partnership. Then Fissette was gone.
All she has done since then was win the gold medal at the Asian Games and the second title of her career at the Zhengzhou Open, which included wins over Maria Sakkari and the 2021 French Open champion, Krejcikova. How’s that for moving on?
She also wasn’t afraid to celebrate her most recent win with a little karaoke.
The victory sent Zheng back into the top 20, matching her career high of 19th. She has a crushing forehand and a work ethic that had Fissette raving.
In Paris this spring, she said she is still learning how to handle losses. She cries after many of them. There should be a lot less tears in the coming year.
Peyton Stearns, 22, USA
Nobody really knew what Stearns was at Indian Wells in March. She was merely the opponent of one Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion and crowd favorite.
Stearns looked like a lot of former NCAA champions, long on athleticism and power but with a long way to go with the rest of her game. Still, that power and athleticism got into the deep end of a slugfest with Andreescu. The Canadian was lucky to survive that cool night in the desert, and as the tennis season unfolded over the spring and summer, Stearns proved herself a quick study.
Two months later, she was in the third round at the French Open after vanquishing former champion Jelena Ostapenko, the ultimate slugger.
“My phone is lighting up right now,” she said later that evening.
Skepticism about college players is always within earshot in pro tennis. Stearns isn’t having it.
“College is kind of the way to go if you’re going to be a tennis pro, especially if you’re not making slams,” she said in Paris. “I developed skills off the court. Independence, learning how to manage my time, I had eight or nine other girls on a team that I had to help out with, so I wasn’t only helping out myself but I was helping out them. You kind of have to step up and become a leader, especially if you’re playing high up in the lineup. It just taught me a lot of social skills.”
A former gymnast who got serious about tennis a little later than other juniors, Stearns is no longer wasting any time.
Three months after Paris, with a full summer of pro tennis in her bag, Stearns was at it again, surging into the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
A couple of years ago in college, Stearns got caught up in comparing herself to other women her age.
“I was like, they’re making quarters of slams and I’m here in college,” she recalled. “I think the biggest thing for me was, everyone takes their own pathway in life and, I mean, look where I am now. I’m right where I wanted to be.”
Linda Noskova, 18, Czech Republic
What is it about Czech women and tennis? The country has just 10.5 million people, which means roughly 5.25 million women. And yet, there are seven Czech women in the top 50, including the reigning Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova and the French Open finalist Karolina Muchova.
The youngest of the lot is Noskova, who was outside the top 100 early in the year. Then she went on a roll in Adelaide ahead of the Australian Open. After surviving a match point and a third-set tiebreaker in the first round of qualifying, she went on to beat Daria Kasatkina, Victoria Azarenka and Ons Jabeur in the main draw.
Not a bad way to start the year.
The run sent Noskova into the top 50 and she has not shown many signs of heading backwards.
Noskova isn’t the flashiest player on the tour, but she has a sneaky good serve – just ask Azarenka, who got aced with a match point chance in Adelaide — and a stout backhand, especially down the line. She isn’t afraid to hit a swinging backhand volley from the service line and there are no shortage of moments when she is floating across the court when it’s hard not to think about Muchova or Vondrousova, and on and on. Czech women and tennis. That is how it is.
Noskova is still looking for her Grand Slam breakthrough. She won a match in Paris at the French Open and in New York at the U.S. Open, but lost in the first round at Wimbledon. There is plenty of time and Noskova seems in no rush. Amidst that run in Adelaide, she was asked how it felt to beat all those fancy players.
The results were nice, she said, but what she really cared about was that she was playing great tennis.
Clervie Ngounoue, 17, U.S.A.
Whatever is going to happen for Ngounoue might not happen for a while. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing in her first summer of top-rank WTA competition, mostly in qualifying and opening rounds, where she won some and lost some.
But in July, Ngounoue won the Wimbledon junior title. Iga Swiatek won that. So did Jelena Ostapenko, and Ashleigh Barty, and Caroline Wozniacki and some other pretty decent players.
Ngounoue is the daughter of parents from Cameroon who settled in Washington, D.C. She grew up playing on local courts in city parks, getting trained by her father and uncle, practicing with her older sister and her younger brother.
“We’re a tennis family,” she said in September, with a gleaming smile that comes easily.
She has also spent some of her formative years at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in France. Mary Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam champion, is a mentor.
The way she walks around a tennis tournament, with her shoulders up and back and her long braids flowing – sometimes they are neon blue, sometimes scarlet – it’s impossible not to watch her. She has the sort of presence that makes people say, “Who is that?” as she passes by.
At the Citi Open in Washington’s Rock Creek Park in July, she beat Anna Blinkova, who was then ranked 37th, in the opening round of qualifying. Her summer also included the title at the under-18 U.S.T.A. junior nationals. That got her a wildcard into the U.S. Open main draw, where she lost badly in the first round, but so have plenty of 17-year-olds.
What’s next, she was asked one late afternoon in New York.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” she said with a laugh, before remembering she was off to qualifying in San Diego. “After that, I have no idea.”
That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
(Top photos: Getty Images)