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Kasatkina, Mertens, Sabalenka, Barty and Kontaveit: Which young WTA star will have the biggest impact in 2019?

Andrew Hendrie in WTA Tour 29 Nov 2018
  • A look at some of the brightest young prospects in women's tennis
  • We look ahead to 2019 and which of the select group will have the biggest impact
Aryna Sabalenka (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images)

With so much depth in the WTA field at the moment, competitiveness to establish one’s self at the top of the rankings and challenge for the biggest titles has never been so fierce - read on below as we cast our eye over five rising stars aged 23 years and younger who will be trying to take their games to the next level in 2019.

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Daria Kasatkina

Daria Kasatkina (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images)

Country: Russia
Age: 21
Ranking: No. 10
2018 titles: Moscow

It seems as if Kasatkina has been around for ages, but she’s still just 21 years of age and the second youngest member of the top 10 behind U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka. At her best, Kasatkina is equipped with a fine balance of attack and defence, she’s consistent and her solid brand of tennis can he extremely hard to break down, making her opponents feel as if they’re playing against a brick wall. The Russian was brilliant over the first half of 2018, registering seven top 10 wins and reaching the biggest final of her career at Indian Wells and making back-to-back major quarter-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Kasatkina did fall off slightly after Wimbledon, winning back-to-back matches at just two of eight tournaments, but she ended up winning one of them, prevailing at the Premier event in Moscow in an epic final against Ons Jabeur. It’s only natural that younger players experience ups and downs throughout the course of a long season, but Kasatkina is now approaching the age where she has the ability to remain at a high level all year long. She has all the ingredients to succeed and compete for Grand Slams and Premier Mandatory silverware in 2019.

Elise Mertens

Elise Mertens (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

Country: Belgium
Age: 23
Ranking: No. 12
2018 titles: Hobart, Lugano, Rabat

Mertens has put together a meteoric rise over the last couple of seasons, improving from No. 120 at the start of 2017 to a current career-high ranking of No. 12. But can she make that next leap in her career, establish herself in the top 10 and become a genuine challenger for the big titles? Out of all the players in this select group, I do have my doubts. And that’s not to say Mertens isn’t an excellent player - she undoubtedly is, compiling a 46-21 record in 2018, winning three WTA titles and reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final at the Australian Open.

However, I do wonder if she has the weapons to beat the very best players in the deep-end of the biggest tournaments. Mertens’ biggest strength is her variety and the ability she has to manipulate baseline exchanges with her multi-skilled repertoire of shots. But, in saying that, the Belgian is prone to being overpowered if her opponent is redlining, and although Mertens can be aggressive if she wants, I wouldn’t say it comes naturally for her. Apart from her Australian Open semi-final, Mertens didn’t make it past the quarter-finals of any other tournament classified as a Premier-5 or above this season. Under big pressure to defend all of January points to kick off 2019, how she performs in Australia could determine if Mertens rises or falls next year.

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Country: Belarus
Age: 20
Ranking: No. 13
2018 titles: New Haven, Wuhan

In my eyes, Sabalenka is the player next in line - certainly at least out of this group of players - to win a Grand Slam title. I’ve been a huge fan of the Belarusian since I witnessed her competing for her country in the Fed Cup a couple of years ago, with that booming serve, ultra-competitiveness and aggressive groundstrokes immediately making her stand out from the crowd. The ability to compete so well for her country at such a tender age shows she can deal with pressure, and that mental strength coupled with her explosive game makes her arguably the brightest young star in women’s tennis coming through the ranks.

Starting 2018 at No. 78 in the world, Sabalenka hit a career-high ranking of No. 11 and finished the season at No. 13 after an incredible campaign that was highlighted by securing her first two WTA titles in New Haven and Wuhan, finishing runner-up in Eastbourne and Lugano, making the semi-finals in Cincinnati and reaching the fourth round of a major for the first time at the U.S. Open, where she was the only player to take a set off eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

With eight top 10 scalps this season, expect Sabalenka to build on that number and challenge for the tour’s biggest titles throughout 2019.

Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty (Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images)

Country: Australia
Age: 22
Ranking: No. 15
2018 titles: Nottingham, Zhuhai

Another young gun who it seems has been around forever - and in a way, Barty has. The Australian is already in a literal second phase of her career after retiring from tennis for almost two years after the 2014 U.S. Open and trying her hand at professional cricket. After a successful stint in Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League, Barty returned to tennis in 2016 and has swiftly made her way to the top of the game, ending 2018 at a career-high ranking of No. 15 after winning the season-ending WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai - the tournament reserved for the world’s next best eight players after Singapore.

Now the question is Barty ready to climb even higher? It will be interesting to follow and I’m honestly not sure. The 22-year-old is probably the most relaxed and chilled athlete I’ve ever seen in any sport, and that can play for or against you depending on the situation. Barty is also unique in the sense she’s incredibly comfortable in the forecourt and loves chipping and charging with her brilliant slice before finishing points off at the net. Introverted by nature on the court, Barty might struggle to impose herself if she finds herself in the latter stages of slams against the world’s very best, but I can certainly see her making her way towards the top 10 at some stage next season.

Anett Kontaveit

Anett Kontaveit (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Country: Estonia
Age: 22
Ranking: No. 21
2018 titles: None (runner-up in Wuhan)

Apart from Sabalenka, Kontaveit probably has the biggest weapons out of all the players in this group, but will that translate to the Estonian breaking into the upper echelon of women’s tennis in 2019? The potential is undoubtedly there, but whether the consistency is at this stage is under some doubt. Kontaveit had a solid start to 2018, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open, but she failed to make any sort of impact again until the clay season, where she all of a sudden exploded into form, making the semi-finals of Stuttgart and Rome and the R16 in Madrid and the French Open.

The 22-year-old again went quiet for the next couple of months before everything came together once more at the Premier-5 Wuhan Open, where she advanced to the biggest final of her career before going down to Sabalenka. Ending the season on the cusp of the top 20, Kontaveit will need to find improved consistency throughout the year if she wants to break and remain in that bracket in 2019 - but with her big serve and enormous groundstrokes, she does have the ability to go on a big run out of nowhere at the biggest tournaments.

2019 Predictions

Kasatkina - will remain in the top 10 and win multiple titles in the same season for the first time
Mertens - might struggle to back up this season. Could drop out of top 20.
Sabalenka - will challenge for a major title and crack the top 10
Barty - could go either way, but should be consistent enough to stay in top 20 by season’s end
Kontaveit - much like this season, expect some deep runs at big tournaments coupled with early exits at others. Should be able to break into the top 15/20 at some stage.

Player to end 2019 at the highest ranking:


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Kasatkina, Mertens, Sabalenka, Barty and Kontaveit: Which young WTA star will have the biggest impact in 2019?

With so much depth in the WTA field at the moment, competitiveness to establish one’s self at the top of the rankings and challenge for the biggest titles has never been so fierce - read on below as we cast our eye over five rising stars aged 23 years and younger who will trying to take their games to the next level in 2019.

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