27 July, 2010

Searching For A Winner

In the late 1990s, the WTA Tour was stronger than ever, and frankly as strong as the men’s tour. Women’s tennis had survived the retirements of standard bearers Evert & Navratilova and was prospering with a roster of current and future legends.  Steffi Graf, the Grande Dame, was the indomitable champion still showing flashes of her golden youth.  Monica Seles, the wounded warrior princess, was back and, sterling credentials aside, the sentimental favorite everywhere she played.  Martina Hingis’ tactical brilliance, Lindsay Davenport’s textbook perfect ground game and the awe-inspiring power of the Williams sisters were all in ascendance ensuring the WTA Tour would continue its upward trajectory.

In that golden decade for the WTA, five women, all current or future Hall of Famers, ascended to the No. 1 ranking: Graf, Seles, 4-time major champion Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Hingis and Davenport.  Since, ten women have held that post including two who have never won a major.  Apparently, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated the ATP tour of late, winning an unprecedented 21 of the last 24 majors; the women have been dominated only by uncertainty.

Serena Williams, the greatest female tennis player of our generation.

Serena Williams is the case-closed best player of our time, a 13-time major champion and frankly an exception to this conversation. One day soon though, Serena isn’t going to walk through that door.  If you’re not a major event, you might even say that day has already come.  What’s the future for the WTA when the 13 time major champion hangs up her racquet for good?

The future was supposed to be in the hands of the Glamazon Maria Sharapova, no really, she’s 6’2.”  Like the fabled Amazons, the Russian has the sex appeal to seduce marketers and casual fans, combined with the fighting spirit to be a dominant force on the court.  A 3-time major champion in her own right, Sharapova’s the kind of player who would still win when she wasn’t at her explosive best, who could intimidate lesser lights into coughing up crucial breaks with little more than a steely glance (read: glare).  Unfortunately, Sharapova’s been betrayed by the body that made her fortune. Her shoulder injury robbed of the physical tools to impose her big serve-oriented game. Over a year into her post-surgery comeback, her championship aura has been all but shattered. Fact is, even playing a level or two removed from her physical peak, Maria is still in the Top 20 and has won two titles this year. Largely, this is because she has something that implausibly, most of the current generation of tour players can’t seem to muster, the will to win.

Graf, Seles, Navratilova, Hingis, Evert, the Williamses, Sharapova, Henin, those women approach(ed) a tennis court like it was the octagon.  Oh, blood may be spilt, alright, but it won’t be theirs.  Graf, at her most devastating, famously thrashed Natasha Zvereva in the ’88 French Open final 6-0, 6-0, I’d like to reiterate, Zvereva won six matches to get to a major final, then Steffi served her a double bagel in 32 minutes.  Hingis reputedly once asked big serving Lindsay Davenport after a coin toss if Davenport wanted to “return or be broken.”  Justine Henin’s distaste for loss was so strong that she pulled out of the Aussie Open final sick to her stomach ostensibly at how she was losing to perennial underachiever Amelie Mauresmo.  Imagine Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, “Sweet” Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin or Viktoria Azarenka mustering up that sort of spirit.  You can’t, because if the years of tennis we’ve seen from them thus far are any indication, they can’t. Not where it matters anyway.

Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis

Like kids who grow up watching reality TV, the unfortunate lesson of Kournikova may have been that you only need to be pretty good and pretty (or crazy to keep up the TV metaphor) to be a star. It seems that although I see Kournikova as a serious tennis player who never fulfilled her potential, the kids who grew up watching her have just worked hard enough to become stars. The tennis is just an audition to get them through the gates. The sport, a means to an end rather than the end itself.

To be fair Safina, Jankovic, Wozniacki, and Azarenka have all won singles titles and have been ranked than Kournikova ever was. What I’m questioning is their desire to go a step further.

I’ve never met any of the top players, and I’m sure they would all say they’re working hard and want to be No. 1, but the results seem to speak for themselves. There is a revolving door of top ten players. Yet, the upper echelons of the game are filled with elder stateswomen like the Williamses, Henin, Clijsters, players who actually played against Steffi Graf (who retired back in ’99) and who often beat up on Kournikova. Francesca Schiavone who broke through for the 2010 French Open title is 30, about the age most tennis players start heading for Shady Pines. Hell, Kimiko Date Krumm retired for THIRTEEN YEARS and at age 39 has climbed 61st in the world.

Where is that next generation of women who want to be bigger than stars, say, actual champions? If you’re the WTA tour, you’re still searching. Searching for a winner.

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