It’s been almost two weeks since Aryna Sabalenka’s last title, and the next one is starting to feel overdue. With respect to Naomi Osaka’s ascent, the Belarussian is the hottest rising star on the women’s tour right now, with two titles in the last two months, plus two more finals earlier in the season. The 20-year-old is 8-4 against the top ten this year, with wins over Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Elina Svitolina, and Karolina Pliskova.
It takes time for all of these wins to show up in the WTA rankings. Sabalenka nudged into the top 20 after winning New Haven in August, and rose as high as 11th last Monday, though she is set to fall back to 14th after failing to defend her title in Tianjin this week. While the official ranking is a lagging indicator, Elo ratings react more quickly, especially to high-profile upsets like the ones Sabalenka has been recording almost every week.
Sabalenka’s Elo rating has rocketed to the top of the list. Through last week’s matches, she sits at second overall, behind Simona Halep, but closer to Halep than to third-place Wozniacki. After knocking out Caroline Garcia in Beijing last week, she briefly took over the Elo top spot before handing it back after her quarter-final loss to Qiang Wang. Still, an overall ranking of #2 is a lot more suggestive of future stardom than the WTA computer’s report of #11.
When Elo looks at hard court matches alone, it is even more optimistic, putting Sabalenka at the very top of the list. Elo would narrowly favor the Belarussian in a hard-court match against Halep and, assuming the draw treated both players equally, would make Sabalenka the early favorite for the 2019 Australian Open title.
What should we make of this? Is it time to appoint Sabalenka the next superstar, or ought we treat Elo ratings with more circumspection? Let’s take a look at players who have topped the Elo list in the past to get a better idea.
Since 1984, only 29 women (including Sabalenka) have reached the #1 or #2 spot on the overall Elo list. 19 of them got to #1 in the official rankings. Here are the other ten:
This is pretty good company. Svitolina could still reach #1, and several of the others were expected to attain even greater heights than they did. The only warning sign here is Johanna Konta, who isn’t the best comp for a young star, as she didn’t crack the top two until close to her 26th birthday.
The group of women who have ranked #1 on the hard-court specific Elo ranking table is even more select. Sabalenka is only the 17th player since 1984 to head the list, and 14 of the 17 have topped the official rankings as well. The only other exceptions are Svitolina and Konta.
If there’s ever a good time to anoint a 14th-ranked player the future of the sport, I’d say this is it. Elo isn’t perfect, and it’s possible that the algorithm has overreacted to a series of upsets in a season packed full of them. But if the system has made a mistake, it’s one that it doesn’t make very often. Sabalenka has only won four main-draw matches at majors, so maybe that 2019 Australian Open title is too much to ask. But in the long term, one grand slam title might be a mere harbinger of even greater things to come.