Sunday, August 21, 2011
The State of the WTA
Most "state of" analyses of tennis take place after a major. I'm doing mine before the start of the United States Open on August 29th because there have been tectonic shifts in the conversation around women's tennis and most of it has to do with the woman pictured above.
The WTA top ten is as follows.
1 Wozniacki, Caroline 11/07/90 DEN 9915 22
2 Zvonareva, Vera 07/09/84 RUS 7045 21
3 Clijsters, Kim 08/06/83 BEL 6726 15
4 Azarenka, Victoria 31/07/89 BLR 6390 21
5 Li, Na 26/02/82 CHN 5671 18
6 Kvitova, Petra 08/03/90 CZE 5561 21
7 Sharapova, Maria 19/04/87 RUS 5446 14
8 Schiavone, Francesca 23/06/80 ITA 4955 21
9 Bartoli, Marion 02/10/84 FRA 4325 26
10 Stosur, Samantha 30/03/84 AUS 3775 21
Lets take a brief look at the top female tennis players starting with Samantha Stosur.
I have to be frank. I've never understood all the hoopla about Samantha. Yes she's made the transition from a doubles player to a competent singles player but I'm at a loss for all the adulation and rapturous cyberink spent on touting her as the second coming. I wonder if she was from any country other than Australia the Grand Poobahs would be so busy pumping her status up as the next big thing. Tennisheads all know that Stosur is the best Australian player right now and someone in the axis has to have a Big Star. It's obvious that the best of Britain so far is faltering and France, well, the less said the better.
Australia is so desperate to have a star that all of the drama between Bernard Tomic and his family is being swept under the rug and there is a lot chatter about Tomic's new found maturity and dedication to the game. Kind of the same thing that's being done regarding United States player Ryan Harrison.
But this is a WTA post. To my knowledge Stosur has never thrown a racquet, verbally assaulted a chair umpire or engaged in any conduct detrimental to tennis. It's clear that the hype is putting pressure on her and the hype machine needs to back off. I think if they did she could relax and play her game without worrying about the critiques that will come afterward. She could move up a couple of places if that would happen.
I'm surprised that Marion has never really capitalized on her talent. Of course this could have to do with her almost constant brawling with the French Federation and her unorthodox style and her fathers unorthodox approach to fitness and play. When Marion's game is on it's on. She's slimmed down a great deal and can move much better than she used to.
I have to question the necessity of all the jumping up and down and gesticulating between points. The last match I saw Marion play she visibly flagged after playing a tough set. When the between point stuff stopped so did her game. I think she's ranked right about where she should be this year. the tennis press tends to ignore Maid Marion and allows her to fly under the radar. All of that works to her advantage.
The question is what the hell is this old broad doing in the WTA top ten at this stage of her career? The answer is she's there because she knows how to play tennis. Not slap the ball around, screaming and grunting all the time although she does make a bit of noise, but how to think and strategize on the fly, something that is an asset and very rare among the younger generation. She's not going to win all the time but you'll know you've been in a match after playing her. She doesn't let go of your throat easily as her coach knows.
It's the intangibles she brings that make her one of the women who can go deep at the US Open.
Maria is still one of the most polarizing figures in tennis. Despite the kinder, gentler, giggly about her fiancé Maria the Siberian Ban Sidhe is still in residence and as determined as ever to regain her spot at the top of the game.
When pressured Maria can still make double faults and while her movement has improved no one would call her a gazelle on the courts. Pressure also causes brain freeze with her and she isn't the confident figure she makes herself out to be when that happens. She's added a beautifully disguised drop shot to her repertoire and this can help her with her movement issues since she'll catch her opponents off guard.
The draw is all important to Maria's chances of making the second week in New York. She's been given cupcake draws and well hidden within the draw in the past but this year I think the USTA is going to have to produce a more competitive draw for all seeded players, top to bottom. Can she make the semi's? If things align in her favor there's no reason why she can't. Is she a top ten player? Are any of them?
I believe Petra really suffers from asthma. This will hinder her during the US summer hard court swing and prevent her from playing at her best. Her two performances this summer in the States have been disappointing. That she's now perceived as a threat by her peers is putting it mildly. I think we'll see her treated as such by the makers of random draws and especially those in New York.
Kvitova is experiencing the pressure a top tier player has to face and I don't think it'll make dealing with her asthma easier. When she is relaxed she's a joy to watch if you like Big Babe tennis. As a Big Babe she doesn't move well either and that can be a liability for her going forward unless she develops a shot that will keep her opponents off balance and allow her to get in position for a good return. Can she win the big one? She won Wimbledon. It felt weird writing that.
It's amazing how this personality has been muted by the WTA press machine. It wasn't until this years Australian Open that the world at large got to know Li Na. There are a thousand reasons why, all negative, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say Li is another old broad who knows how to play tennis. The American comms like to make a big deal about endorsements and how she's surpassed Sharapova in the monetary value of her deals but they talk very little about how she managed to win a Grand Slam title this year. It could be said that she almost won two and would have if nerves and the newness of being in a Slam final hadn't gotten to her in Melbourne.
I thought that she was fueled by anger in Melbourne but that it had dissipated somewhat when she got to Paris. It's interesting how her former coach Thomas Hogstedt is being touted as a near genius by the American tennis establishment and not a word is spoken about his association with Li Na. I'm just saying.
If Li can control her emotions and play the mental game of tennis like she did in Australia and France she will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in women's tennis. Like Kvitova she's got a target on her back and is no longer considered fodder in a draw. Still she's a Grand Slam Champion and somehow I think she has it in mind to be more than a one time champion.
No one with the amount of junk food Azarenka carries in her tennis bag can stay mentally or physically focused over a long period of time. If you think I'm kidding about her junk food watch her Bag Check on Tennis Channel. I'm not sure if the Bag Checks are on YoutTube or not but Tennis Channel posts them on their website.
I'm not a revisionist when it comes to bad behavior on court. I'm tired of Andy Roddick's petulance on court as well as his apologies afterwards. This is learned behavior and he's probably been getting away with it since he was two. Azarenka has been advised to cut the shit and she hasn't gone after a chair umpire or had a complete breakdown on court in a long while now but I still think that in the end she doesn't have the temperament to win a major. Not that she doesn't want to but her knowledge of the game is severely lacking and like many of her generation of players she's incapable of thinking and constructing points while playing. She can overpower lesser opponents but when she starts playing more experienced players she shows up mentally fragile.
I'm always stunned at her ranking. I remain so.
I have to admit I was surprised that Kim withdrew from the US Open. I thought she was doing her usual and trying to come into New York as the most rested player. She's done this the last couple of years and with the help of a soft draw has been able to go deep.
Kim is not only out of the Open. She announced earlier this year that she was not going to Japan, something the tennis press seems to have missed hearing since they're acting as if this is the first she's said she would miss at least some of the Asian swing. She's also announced that 2012 will be her last year playing competitively.
I'm not a fan of her style of play but that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve her ranking. Like everyone else she is ranked where she is mostly because of where she's played and how deep she's been able to get when she plays. I don't think her style will leave a lasting impression on the game.
Last night, for one glorious set, Vera Zvonareva showed why she is ranked number two in the WTA. There was pinpoint accuracy in her shot making and she moved with ease around the court frustrating her fellow Russian Maria Sharapova. The ESPN commentators swooned when Thomas Hogstedt told his player that Bepa wouldn't play like that for long and Bepa set out to prove him right. It was as if Vera forgot what to do on court, forgot what she'd done the first set and that gave Sharapova the opening she needed. In no time Sharapova won the next two sets and the match.
Is it any wonder people ask how Vera is ranked #2 in the world? She didn't ask for her coach, to her credit, but she totally lost the plot. The way she played last night it's a wonder she's in the top ten let alone the top three.
Then again Sharapova does not like losing to Russians and she will fight tooth and nail to make sure she beats them. Is it because the Russian's are all headcases unable to fight their way through a match? I don't know. I do know that Vera can and has played better than she did last night. Her mental collapses in big matches are becoming legendary and overshadow her wins.
Where do I start? She has played the most matches, defeated many lower ranked players, and the CEO of the WTA calls her "Sunshine".
She is friends with all the top players including the Williams women, and hasn't met a photo op she doesn't like. The male dominated ranks of tennis journalists love her to death (it's not quite Ana Ivanovic worship but it's close) and she has a fan base that simply adores her.
So why is it when you mention her name you get side eyes, rolling eyes, hands thrown in the air, sucked teeth and facepalms? As I said she does have her fans but they sometimes get drowned out in the screaming.
She's a "pusher". Not of drugs but in her style of play. Offense seems to be, well, offensive to her and it drives many people up the wall including her opponents who often end up at a loss to explain how she beat them. It doesn't help that the commentators and the WTA think she walks on water. It's never good when your professional association gives you a nick name and makes it clear that you're the favorite, the new face of the sport. They did this to Sharapova too if you recall. Many fans still can't stand her because of the overt favoritism that came her way.
Be that as it may there's new drama around her regarding her coaching situation. Apparently her father, Victor or Piotr, whichever you prefer, is not coaching her anymore. People have been quick to say that Caroline wants to take her tennis in a new direction and that Victor/Piotr has agreed he's not the man to take her there. There's also a lot of blather about her and a pro golfer.
Personally I wonder if Victor/Piotr has stepped down for other reasons. The tennis press in the United States has not had much to say about Mr Wozniacki's name change and I have never heard them even mention it. The Danish press strongly hinted that there are reasons the man legally known as Victor Krason might want to use the name he was given at birth when working with his daughter. The only American to cover this was Christopher Clarey of the New York Times.
As you all know I can find a conspiracy in opening a newspaper so maybe I'm just being overly suspicious. It doesn't help that the Krason/Wozniacki family is playing games with who the new coach will be. It leads me to suspect that the stepping down has nothing to do with Caroline's desire to play more offensively and that her father had to step down quickly.
There is also talk of a power struggle between the golfer Caroline is said to be dating and her father. That gets an eye roll from me. Professional athletes don't make changes when someone has been in their life all of five minutes. Between her agents, her management company and the WTA I don't think there's a lot of room for the "fuck all of you" school of pro tennis.
Keep in mind I have no idea of what is really going on. The above is idle speculation on my part.
No report on the state of the WTA is complete without discussing one Miss Serena Williams. When she made her return in Europe I said that if she comes back and lays waste to the WTA it wouldn't be the brightest hour for the WTA. Serena wasn't physically ready to come back then and the rust was literally dripping from her. That is not the case now.
Serena has gotten herself to #31 in the rankings, high enough to be a seed at the US Open. There are a lot of people arguing that the US Open should do like Wimbledon does and give Serena a higher seed. It's not that all of these people are suddenly in love with Serena Williams. It's because as a lower seed she is tantamount to a dangerous floater and can take out some of the blonde ponytailed darlings the WTA relentlessly promotes early in the tournament. Ranking her among the top ten would seem to insure that she faces qualifiers and wild cards as well as lower ranked players and wouldn't meet one of the darlings until the second week.
In other words they're scared shitless of Serena continuing her rampage through the ranks of the WTA. Rank her higher they're screaming or there will be chaos! Bonuses and television rankings depend on certain darlings making it to the second week. We can't have this old woman beating up the little kids and taking their lunch money can we?
I still think Serena is not 100%. She was breathing heavily in her later matches in both Toronto and Stanford. It's going to be a hard road for her in New York if the Open takes place in typical NYC August weather. But I don't underestimate her will to win. She will also have a day off between each match that will probably help.
The state of the WTA depends on the physical condition of Serena Williams. And that's the truth.