Examining the WTA through a transition lens

Everyone was talking about Elina Svitolina as the WTA Finals were about to get underway, but not the way they are now that she won the title with a gritty three-set win on Sunday over Sloane Stephens.

Back then, the "haters" -- Svitolina's word -- complained that she had backed into the year-end championships so unconvincingly that you could almost hear her going beep-beep-beep. And despite gobbling up points on the tour, she was towing a reputation as a Grand Slam underachiever who only won her place in the Singapore draw by default, when WTA No. 1 Simona Halep pulled out of the event at the last minute due to injury.

Svitolina heard the jibes, and she carried a chip on her shoulder. Nobody was able to knock it off as she ran the table in Singapore, winning with a perfect 5-0 record. "I think I have nothing to prove anymore to anyone," she told the media after the final. "It's definitely a good statement for myself."

The surprising result was also a significant statement for the WTA, emphatically ending a year of surprises and breakthroughs, a year of transition, that opens the floodgates for the coming year.

This is the first year since 2011 that Serena Williams didn't win a major title, and she's 37 years old now. Maria Sharapova, oft-injured and 31, hasn't been to a Grand Slam final since 2015. She's clinging to her ranking inside the Top 30. Halep finally won a major, but the effort cost her dearly: The 5-foot-6 Romanian dynamo has a herniated disc. Former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka still can't get much traction in her comeback and Garbine Muguruza was MIA.

The shock waves started at the Australian Open, where Caroline Wozniacki finally punched through to win her first major (Note to Svitolina haters: Wozniacki's springboard to the title was her win at the 2017 WTA Finals). Halep fans groaned when she fell behind Stephens in the French Open final in June, but she mounted a furious charge to bag her own first Slam. Wimbledon was a shocker: A rejuvenated Angelique Kerber became the first woman in a decade to beat Serena Williams in a final at Wimbledon. Then 21-year-old Naomi Osaka belted out another stunner, an upset of Williams in the US Open final.

All that was enough to make people forget the likes of Muguruza and another stalled young Grand Slam champion, Jelena Ostapenko -- along with the likes of familiar names like Venus Williams, Madison Keys, Agnieszka Radwanska, Johanna Konta, Caroline Garcia. Some of them will surely make their presence felt next year, as will Petra Kvitova, Daria Kasatkina and Aryna Sabalenka, who started the year ranked No. 78 and finished it ranked No. 12. The list of potential contenders is a long one, but credit Svitolina for leaping high on it.

Before they met in the final, Stephens expressed sympathy for Svitolina. "A lot of the top girls who have up-and-down results, a win here and then they lose there, we all kind of deal with the same thing," she told reporters. "I definitely know what she's talking about."

Stephens was speaking from experience. It wasn't so long ago that the same critics who hammered away at Svitolina were pounding away at Stephens, and for much the same reason.

"Everyone was, like, 'Oh, she's a one-hit wonder, she'll never do anything again, it was just lucky [she won the US Open], no one was playing, blah, blah, blah,'" Stephens said of her critics. "I think this season I was just like 'I really want to play a little more consistent, I want to have some better results in the bigger tournaments and just do better and show that I'm, you know, I'm a top-10 player or top whatever player.'"

Stephens certainly proved that in 2018, her strong finish as a first-timer in a WTA Finals sealing her case. Svitolina, who was convincingly discharged from last year's edition of the tournament after winning just one match, also certified her "top whatever" status. Don't forget Kiki Bertens, the other debutante in Singapore, who made the semifinals and had a terrific year loaded with upset wins over Top 10 players.

The story those three women wrote in Singapore made it easy to overlook Karolina Pliskova, the fourth semifinalist. The 21-year old Czech player has been ranked No. 1 and has been nibbling around the edges of a Grand Slam title for a few years now. Given the way 2018 went, you could hardly blame her for looking at the coming year and thinking, "It's my turn."

Unfortunately for her, plenty of other women are probably thinking the same thing.