Sunday, September 16, 2007

The State of Women's Tennis

by Savannah

Any discussion of men's tennis these days seems to always get around to the topic of the greatest of all times - GOAT for short. Part of these arguments, aside from fans of the players most often in the discussion, has to do with the era in which Player A played as opposed to the era Player B is playing in. Weak era is the epithet given to this time in men's tennis.

If some fans consider the current crop of ATP players to be "weak" what can be said of the WTA where a woman who gave birth in June of this year just came back to the tour and not only did well but took home the championship trophy beating one of the biggest names on the women's tour along the way? And not just any big name, the number three ranked player in the world.

Lindsay's win is great for working mothers and obviously a joy for her fans. But if a woman who recently gave birth can come in and roll over what was a pretty decent field for a post Grand Slam Tier III event what do the rankings mean? Tennisheads were already rolling their eyes at Svetlana Kuznetsova being the number two player in the world behind Justine Henin. Jelena Jankovic has played her way to number three. Maria Sharapova, the world number four, had been beaten badly in every Grand Slam she played this year coming into the US Open. At the US Open her draw had even the corporate press asking questions and she still went out to a teenager from Poland in the third round. Anna Chakvetadze comes in at number five. Let's take a few minutes and look critically at the top five women in the world.

Justine Henin

Given her back story, her diminutive size and recent divorce you'd think Justine would have a lock on fan favorite. Instead she is one of the least loved players in recent memory. Forget Steffi vs Monica (Steffi was always the heavy in that scenario). She is known by various epithets all related to what is perceived as her cheat at all costs character. I saw her live at the US Open. I was sitting courtside when she took out an obviously ailing Serena Williams. Given the history of the US Open and the Williams sisters I expected a groundswell of fan support for Justine. Instead the crowd was doing all it could to lift Serena, a sight unseen in New York until now. Going home on the train one tennis fan shot down his friend who wanted to praise Justine by saying she's a liar and a cheat and that "after the hand incident" in Paris against Serena he could never ever root for her. And I guess it's best not to discuss the "gastric distress" she suffered at the Australian Open.For the first time in at least ten years I didn't watch a tennis final being broadcast live on network television. Apparently I wasn't alone as the ratings dropped this year.
Justine plays an extremely limited schedule and has yet held onto the number one ranking. A friend who is a casual fan of the sport noticed that the NY crowd seemed cool to Justine. Cool is putting it mildly.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

When Sveta is on she plays beautiful tennis. When she's not she looks as if she's never seen a tennis court before. These changes in play can happen in one match. Yet she is now the number two player in the world. Why? I guess she stepped in you know what somewhere and came up smelling like a rose. I really have no idea why she is number two to be honest with you. She's in the top five of the "Tennis Headcase's" list in my opinion and has not played well (Davis Cup aside). It's my understanding that during the US Open Final she mounted no offense against Henin and her predictable loss was quick. Again, I don't have an explanation for her high ranking except that she's played a pretty full schedule this year and that her accumulated points give her the number two ranking.

Jelena Jankovic

Jelena has played her way to number three in the world. Some would say all that tennis she played in the beginning of the year has caught up with her. Fan of her as I am I have to agree. But looking critically at her she has a very weak serve and while the rest of her game is solid how do you make a kid coming up practice her serve when Jelena is number three? As part of the Serbian Trinity she is getting a lot of publicity. She has the engaging mother, the on court personality and is well educated to boot. She also has a tongue that has a mind of it's own which while refreshing will not win her too many supporters in the WTA boardroom. She's twice this year mused on the suspect draws in women's tennis in front of the press. She's also taken to using the imperial "we" when referring to herself. This happened after she had a melt down over line calls in Bali on her way to losing to Lindsay. As the saying goes "don't hate the player hate the game" Jelena. You have played the most aggressive schedule of any of the top ten this year. You are mentally and physically tired. You have to be. You lost. Bad calls are part of the game. This is the second major melt down in as many years Jelena. Your melt down last year at the US Open sent Justine on her way. This one has relaunched Lindsay's career. People are going to start to like seeing you across the net if you keep this up.

Maria Sharapova

Larry Scott has proclaimed her the "Golden Girl", the woman who will usher in a golden age of women's tennis. All publicity, all praises, all the glory goes to Ms Sharapova at the expense of the other women on the tour. Admittedly Justine would be a hard sell and for entirely different reasons so would Sveta. Jelena would not be a hard sell at all with her bubbly personality and generally good game. But none of this will happen. It's all about Maria as far as the WTA head honcho is concerned. Too bad. Because unless her opponents are headcases, injured or been tired out by their previous matches Ms Sharapova hasn't won a thing this year. Well she did win that one event during the US Open series after her opponents, who had played a full summer season, were tired out by competitive matches before meeting her. When set to meet another member of the Serbian Trinity, Ana Ivanovic, Maria withdrew twenty minutes before the match was to begin citing a mysterious shin, calf or foot injury. Ana had beaten her soundly earlier this year. I for one expected her to get an easy draw at the US Open but even I didn't expect what she actually got. And I certainly didn't expect teenager Aggie Radwanska to take her out in three sets in the third round. That loss dropped her to number four in the world and the shoulder injury is back. Unless she starts winning again - and this is going to be difficult for her unless she plays a schedule similar to Jelena which ain't gonna happen, the top players have peeped her hole card and know what to do to beat her. I'm sure they'll find some lower ranked players who are willing to play bum of the month for the Golden Girl. I wonder if there are enough of them around to keep her in the top five.

Anna Chakvetadze

This girl has the looks the ad agencies want. She's got a good game, a very good game. She's played well all year and is a fan favorite. But she trains in Moscow. Lives in Moscow. She is Russian after all so this is logical. She doesn't speak English that well but that can be remedied. With proper schedule management I think Anna has the ability to move past Sharapova and even Jankovic. She built her momentum over the year and while I think the US Open series tired her out a bit she still did well at the US Open. She, along with Sveta, were on the Sharapova side of the draw. They of course were seeded to take each other out once Maria was out of the picture which is what happened with Anna losing to Sveta in the semi finals.

Anna, Jelena, and Justine will, in my opinion, be the top three women. They're the only three with "game" on a consistent basis. The rest of the top ten? I think Ana Ivanovic will move into the top four from her number six position. Serena Williams, at number 7, needs to get healthy.
Nadia Petrova, whom I predicted would fall out of the top ten is still there. Again, will wonders never cease although she too has injury problems. Venus Williams, at number 9, won a Slam this year. She was visibly ill during her semi final match against Justine. Rounding out the top ten is the surprising Marion Bartoli. She's the dark horse in this. She obviously has the will to play top tennis. She is also working on her fitness. Can she make the top five? I don't see why not.

Of course all of this depends on what Venus Williams and Serena Williams do next year. Serena has to defend her Oz Open Championship. Venus has Wimbledon to defend. If they play moderately a la Justine Henin, they can easily move into the top five. They were my wild cards at the beginning of the year as well.

So what does all of this have to do with Lindsay Davenport and her easy win in Bali? Everything. She is not down to fighting form yet but she is a seasoned veteran. Can she work herself into shape and play a fairly aggressive schedule in 2008? Why not? Can she make life difficult for the women in the top ten? Of course she can. Will her ability to ease herself into the top ranks again make the WTA look like a bunch of ladies who lunch? Yes. Who will she replace in the top ten? Too soon to tell. Lindsay, like Jelena, has a tongue with a mind of it's own. I'm sure there are people who are not too thrilled at her coming back.

Arguments about the GOAT on the women's side tend to involve Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. None of the current crop enters the discussion. Why? Because you'd have to discuss the Grand Slam wins of Ms Serena Williams and Ms Venus Williams. You'd have to discuss their importance in generating fan support and television revenue. Never really hyped by the WTA both of these women bring rock star auras to any event they play in. One fan asked why any final not involving one of them is boring.

When one player is declared sacred and the other women made to feel like so much chopped liver you have a problem. You can declare anything you want. At the end of the day that player has to win. If she doesn't win even with amazingly weak "random" draws in her favor then what do you do next? Until someone wakes up and realizes there are great and good players who need to be put in the public's mind now, that the game doesn't revolve around one so far mediocre player things will continue to go badly for the women. It wasn't good for women's tennis to see the player hyped as the second coming play what were essentially two exhibition matches on the national stage at night during the US Open. It definitely wasn't good to see her go out to a girl still in her teens in her third match while the players who bring the game and the glamor were playing in the heat of the day and in some cases on outer courts.

So congratulations Lindsay! Work your show. And give 'em hell.

No comments: