December 26, 2010
Say you were hosting a party and wanted to impress with your guest list. And you were given two groups as options:
A - Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling
B - Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva, Kim Clijsters, Venus Williams, Samantha Stosur
There's no question that list A has far greater appeal. The groupings above are, obviously, the top ranked players in tennis for both the men and the women and will be seeded as such when the Australian Open begins in a few weeks.
But whereas the men will be entering the seventh year of the Remarkable Age of Federer and Nadal, the women are a mish-mash of very talented but often undefined, inconsistent players who have yet to take a hold on the sport and forge new rivalries and enrich the narrative of the game.
Except, of course, for the best player in the world - Serena Williams.
But Serena suffered a still somewhat mysterious injury to her foot when she reportedly stepped on glass in Germany last July and hasn't been seen on a court since. And the basic truth is that when Serena isn't playing in a Slam, the drama and anticipation are greatly diminished and the tournament takes on a theme of, "… yes so-and-so won but Serena wasn't here." This is especially true Down Under as Williams has captured the title in Melbourne five times, including the last two years, making it her most prolific Slam.
Love her or not - and undoubtedly her emotional flare-ups have caused quite a bit of consternation in tennis circles the last few years - Serena is the only consistent draw for the women. And she, when healthy, is far and away not just the best player in the world but also the most exciting to watch. Very rare indeed to find an athlete so superior to her rivals in ways both physical and mental, as Serena can either overpower her foes or use her competitive mettle when not playing at her best to will herself to victory.
And it's hard to believe she'll be turning 30 in 2011. It's been more than 11 years since she won her first Slam title at the 1999 U.S. Open just before her 18th birthday. When Serena won four Slam titles in a row (dubbed the "Serena Slam" at the time") during 2002-2003, it appeared that she would threaten Steffi Graf (22) and Margaret Court (24) for all-time Slam titles.
But several years of injuries (brought on in part by questionable conditioning standards) and occasional spotty play has left Serena with "just" 13 Slams. If she were to remain healthy for a few more years it's likely that she'll be able to equal or surpass Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, both with 18 and perhaps eclipse the brilliant 1920s and '30s champion, Helen Wills (19). This would put Serena in lofty company.
Serena being sidelined by injury is far from the only problem in women's tennis these days. The fact that when she's away from the game there's no one else to step up and play the role of the dominant player illustrates how weak a field it is. Of the top five ranked healthy players only one, Clijsters, has won a Slam these last two years. Clijsters has been nothing if not inspiring after coming back from retirement - and motherhood no less - to win two straight U.S. Opens and thereby cementing her Hall of Fame status. But away from the steamy hard courts of Flushing, Clijsters has been a non-factor in the other Slams since her return.
And consider the 20-year-old Wozniacki, who is the current No. 1 player in the world. The young Dane likely has a stellar future in front of her, yet she only made it as far as the semis in one Slam during 2010, hardly the usual resume of the top-ranked player.
Since the Open Era began only Navratilova and Graf played the grass at Wimbledon any better than Venus Williams. With her powerful serve and advantageous wingspan at the net, Venus is a true force on the lawns. But that is the only place where she can be considered a threat. Remarkably, since 2004 Venus has only reached two semifinals at a Slam outside of Wimbledon. And it's highly unlikely that the soon-to-be 31-year-old will make any great strides away from her favored grass.
When Justine Henin followed the path of her countrywoman Clijsters by retiring and then un-retiring and proceeded to reach the final of the first Slam she played in her comeback - the 2010 Australian Open where she lost to Serena - it appeared that the possessor of the most beautiful backhand in tennis would restart her rivalry with Serena and Clijsters and that the women's game would hence be renewed. But unfortunately that didn't happen. Injuries disrupted Henin the second half of 2010 and she hasn't played in a tournament for several months. She will be back in January and one hopes that she'll return to her old form.
Then there are the other frustrating stories. The two that come immediately to mind are Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. Sharapova, always a fierce competitor, has had to endure numerous injuries, significantly muting her once intimidating brand of play. Ivanovic has had problems of the mental variety as she's suffered through several crises of confidence since her lone Slam victory at the 2008 French Open. Yet both of these highly marketable players are only 23 and maybe they'll fight their way back.
It's unfair to compare the women with the men right now. With Nadal and Federer, men's tennis is in a singularly unique time in its sport, a true golden age that has lasted a couple of years longer than most would have predicted several years ago. And the men have had numerous stretches where there were no dominating players; think of the end of Sampras' brilliant career and before the Federer era commenced.
The issue of what is better for a sport, dominance or parity, is one that is debated often. In tennis, there's no question that interest is heightened and excitement builds when there are one or two players who are above the rest. All concerned should hope that Serena gets healthy again and restores some order for the women.