After Naomi Osaka won the 2020 Australian Open, the idea that a British rookie, who was ranked almost 400th in the world at the time, would leapfrog her in the rankings by the time the tournament came around again, was decidedly inconceivable.
Yet, after Emma Raducanu’s unprecedented US Open success and Osaka’s absence from the game for much of the year, that idea is looking increasingly more likely.
Following Osaka’s fourth major triumph in Melbourne in February, all headlines pointed towards her regaining the top spot in the rankings from Ashleigh Barty in the not too distant future.
And at the Miami Open in March, Osaka had a chance of doing just that. The Japanese star was on a run of 23 consecutive victories and could have overtaken the Australian, had she reached the final and bettered Barty’s performance.
Yet, a defeat to Greece’s Maria Sakkari in the quarter-finals proved to be the catalyst for Osaka’s misfortune.
The 24-year-old withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon –– citing mental health problems as the reason why.
Osaka returned at the Tokyo Olympics and was chosen as the torchbearer for the Games. However, a shock defeat in the third round to Marketa Vondrousouva led the former world number one to question her enjoyment of the game anymore.
At the US Open, Osaka chose to defend her title but lost to eventual finalist Leylah Fernandez in the third round.
In her subsequent press conference, the Japanese star revealed she was taking an indefinite break from tennis and hasn’t played since.
Her absence from a number of high ranking events, including two Grand Slams, Indian Wells and the Tour Finals has seen Osaka slip from second in the rankings at the start of the year, to 13th by the end.
Meanwhile, Raducanu burst onto the scene as a teenager this year when she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in her first-ever appearance at a major.
The 18-year-old was forced to retire from her match against Ajla Tomljanović because of breathing problems, leading some to question her mental state.
But the British teenager answered all her critics by going on an extraordinary run at Flushing Meadows. Having come through qualifying, Raducanu won 10 matches on the bounce, without dropping a set, to claim her maiden Grand Slam title.
The win catapulted her up the rankings and though her end of season form saw her lose three of her next five games, she finishes the year ranked 19th in the world.
There are a little more than 300 points separating Raducanu and Osaka right now. When you consider the four-time winner has yet to announce her return to tennis, there is every chance Raducanu could overtake Osaka early next year.
The 2022 tour schedule is yet to be finalised, but there is likely to be a WTA 500 event in Abu Dhabi in January, as well as some pre-Australian Open tournaments in Melbourne.
Because Raducanu has yet to play a full season on tour, her participation in these tournaments will likely strengthen her ranking regardless.
And while Osaka is currently registered to play the Australian Open next year, she is unlikely to gain more ranking points unless she defends her title.
What does this prove exactly? Chiefly, that women’s tennis is highly unpredictable, highly competitive, and more intriguing than it has ever been before.