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One of the dominant narratives of WTA tennis this season has been the series of big names returning to competition after extended periods away from the sport.


Whether due to pregnancy, injury, or suspension, several of the sport’s most recognisable figures are gradually returning to our screens, adding new and exciting layers to each tournament.


However, with a new crop of talent having risen to the top of the rankings in the absence of some of these stars, the question arises as to which, if any, of these former champions will be capable of reclaiming their position at the pinnacle of the sport.


Uncertainty is inevitable with any comeback to professional tennis, although history suggests there may be reasons to be more confident in the capacity of some returning to the tour than others, when it comes to once again challenging for majors and other big titles.


Of course, each of these players may be at a different stage in their comeback, but an attempt can nonetheless be made to determine who will make the biggest impact in 2024.


Simona Halep

The most recent of the returns is that of two-time grand slam champion Simona Halep.


The Romanian returned to the court at the Miami Open yesterday, going down to Spain's Paola Badosa in three sets playing her first match since the 2022 US Open, having had her doping suspension reduced from four years to just nine months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.


The most obvious and recent comparison to Halep’s situation is that of Maria Sharapova, who was banned for 15 months across 2016 and 2017.


Sharapova’s return to the sport was moderately successfully, returning to the top 25 in the world rankings and winning a WTA tour event in Tianjin.


However, the Russian was unable to recapture the magic that had decorated her career previously, with her best grand slam result being a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros in 2018.


Halep’s ban has come at a similar stage in her career to that of Sharapova, although clear distinctions must be drawn when considering the respective injury histories and playing styles.


Most strikingly, Halep’s physical approach to tennis may require more time to readjust to the arduous nature of the tour.


A game-style forged in the heat of competitive matches may prove to be more difficult to replicate at the highest level than one primarily built on out-hitting an opponent.


On the other hand, Halep’s immediate return to action in Miami, despite the somewhat sudden nature of her ban’s reduction, is evidence that she has maintained her physical condition throughout the last 19 months.


Halep has built a career of overcoming the odds sets her up to reach at least one second week of a major in the remainder of the year, and do not be surprised to see her competing for trophies at smaller events later in the year.


Naomi Osaka

The returning player best positioned to go deep, and potentially even to win, a grand slam in 2024 is Naomi Osaka.


The Japanese superstar has made a decent start to the year, posting a 5-5 record heading into the Miami Open.


Whilst not everything has clicked yet, being at an earlier stage of her career combined with her lights-out approach to tennis make Osaka the most likely to return to the summit in 2024.


Osaka is still just 26 years-old, meaning her body has an advantage of several years ahead of her fellow returnees.


Whilst the four-time slam champion is returning from a pregnancy, having announced the birth of her daughter Shai in July 2023, recent history has provided more than enough evidence that such a successful and rapid return to tennis is possible, especially for the biggest hitters.


Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams are perhaps the clearest comparisons, having both reached multiple grand slam finals soon after returning to professional tennis having given birth.


Osaka’s ability to dictate tennis matches, rather than being the reactive party, equip her with an invaluable advantage when it comes to competing at the highest level.


The US Open is the most likely stage on which Osaka could once again find herself competing at the backend of a slam.


A reinvigorated Naomi Osaka is a dangerous proposition at any time, especially one with a renewed sense of focus and motivation for tennis.


Caroline Wozniacki

Former Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki is somewhat misplaced on this list, having initially made her return in August of last year at the Canadian Open.


The Dane’s three tournament run, highlighted by reaching the fourth round of the US Open, was the only competitive tennis she played in 2023, before returning to action in Auckland at the start of 2024.


Nonetheless, the current season is Wozniacki’s first playing regularly since she initially retired at the 2020 Australian Open.


Wozniacki had her two children during the sabbatical, but her ability to hit the ground running upon her return last year is testament to her renowned commitment to fitness and health.


The former world number one reached the Indian Wells quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Iga Swiatek, which on the one hand provides further proof that she is once again playing at an elite level, but on the other raises doubts as to whether she will ever again be able to beat the very best in the world.


The consistency for which Wozniacki was lauded throughout her career is likely to return as she continues to grind down and outsmart opponents.


However, the very peak of the sport may prove a step too far for the Dane, with the likes of Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff capable of overwhelming their more experienced foe.


Angelique Kerber

Many of the observations made about Wozniacki could readily be transposed to the German three-time slam champion.


Returning at this year’s United Cup, where she played for the first time since Wimbledon 2022 following her pregnancy, Kerber had her best week since her return at Indian Wells, where she lost to Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.


The similarities between the German and the Dane include their more reactive game styles, the stages of their respective careers at which they currently find themselves, and their impressive maintenance of their physical conditions whilst away from the tour, such that they have been able to return to elite tennis so rapidly.


A similar conclusion could therefore be drawn about Kerber’s likely exploits in 2024.


Kerber has had less time to establish her level of performance since her return and has one potential advantage over Wozniacki: grass court tennis.


At a time when there is no clear frontrunner in WTA tennis on the grass courts, the 2018 Wimbledon champion may well be capable of a deep run at the All-England Club.


The next few months will be telling as to the level Kerber can regain.


Emma Raducanu

Not much can be said about the 2021 US Open champion that has not already been said by the endless streams of media centred on the Brit.


Raducanu has been able to play a more regular schedule so far in 2024, currently holding a 5-5 record, although she has withdrawn from the Miami Open.


Having missed out on almost all of the last year, tennis fans can only hope that Raducanu is able to remain injury free for an extended period.


The player currently ranked #288 has the most to prove of anyone on this list, but also has the most time to prove it.


Venus Williams

In an almost opposite position to Raducanu, Venus Williams continues to defy expectations by competing at the age of 43.


Unfortunately, several years have now passed since Williams has been able to build any consistency in her competitive tennis.


The odds of her mustering anything beyond a few wins in 2024 appear remote, making her occasional appearances on the tour worth savouring.


In one final demonstration of her absolute dedication to the sport, Williams played her first match of 2024 last week in Indian Wells and is competing once again in Miami.


If her body holds up, Williams remains capable of causing serious trouble for any opponent across the net.


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