Is the WTA in Crisis?
Exactly eight years ago, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters were the world’s top two players. They played regularly, won plenty of big titles, and were generally regarded as best two out there. In fact, leading into the 2003 French Open, the WTA Tour’s top seven were ranked in order as follows: Serena, Clijsters, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. All were (or would come to be) multiple Grand Slam winners and were some of the best players in the history of women’s tennis.
How the WTA would kill for a rankings list like that today. So would Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, it seems. The four-time major winner and former world No. 1 in the 1990s – and now co-tournament director of the Barcelona Ladies Open – said the standard of women’s tennis was better during her era than today’s.
“There was more variety, players with different games, stronger minds, more character,” she told Spanish newspaper El Pais.
“We had eight or 10 players who always had an extreme rivalry. And to be number one, or winning a Grand Slam or two, that just didn’t come. Now everything is much more open. You can be number one without being a great champion. There is a lot more power in the game, but it lacks variety. If you ask people, they know names of the Williams sisters or Clijsters and Henin, but don’t ask them to tell you the name of the (current) number one.”
The trouble is that the big names Sanchez Vicario identifies are not getting on a tennis court very often these days. Serena has not played in 10 months, and Venus has played just two events in that time. And with Clijsters wrecking her ankle while wearing high-heels at a wedding, all three are expected to miss the French Open. Also missing will be four-time Roland Garros winner Henin, who retired in January. That’s a severe absence of talent, and incredibly hard to replace.
Unfortunately, the WTA’s problems don’t end there. Many other stars are simply not playing as well as they used to. Multiple Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova has not been the same since her shoulder surgeries. Former No. 1’s Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic have slumped badly since hitting the summit. Two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova can barely win a match.
Top-tenners Vera Zvonareva, Francesca Schiavone, Samantha Stosur and Li Na are not playing like they belong there, their 2011 seasons marred by perplexing inconsistency. Fluctuating form was again on show when 2010 Madrid winner Aravane Rezai bombed in the first round of her title defence and when Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez was dumped in the first round of the Italian Open after winning it last year.
To top it off, world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki remains slamless, a fact that seriously affects her credibility. She owns a collectively dismal win-loss record of 6-21 against former world No.1’s – most of whom are still playing today – and despite being a default favourite for the Roland Garros title, she has never won a title on red clay.
Sanchez Vicario’s comments were reported on tennis.com and prompted hundreds of comments from visitors, many disagreeing with her sentiments. But frankly, the Spaniard has hit the nail pretty squarely on the head. The WTA is in crisis.
Eight years after being ranked at the top, Williams and Clijsters still remain head-and-shoulders above the rest of the competition, combining to win five of the past six majors. While it shows how enduring and talented they are, it also begs the question: where is the next generation of stars to challenge the established champions?
The greatest players have always added a new dimension to women’s tennis throughout the WTA Tour’s 40-year history. Martina Navratilova introduced the concept of intense training and fitness. Chris Evert popularized the double-handed backhand and baseline play. Steffi Graf and Monica Seles pioneered power baseline tennis, and Seles initiated the grunting trend. Martina Hingis ushered in the era of precocious teenage superstars. The Williams sisters developed a brand of tennis unparalleled in its power and athleticism, until the arrival of Henin and Clijsters. Sharapova brought a level of intensity never before seen on tour.
Yet the women currently at the top of the sport are the first group of players who have failed to raise the bar. They may even have lowered it. It explains why Clijsters and Henin were able to come back after years in retirement and enjoy immediate success at the highest level. The same goes for the Williams sisters – especially Serena – who essentially play part-time yet regularly emerge to win Grand Slam titles.
The WTA Tour’s prime years were arguably 1999 to 2006. During this time it was reported that women’s matches often out-rated men’s on television, with the public apparently attracted to the raft of intriguing personalities, rivalries, contrasting styles, and a very high standard of tennis. Hingis entertained with her tactical nous and command over every shot. Davenport, Capriati, Clijsters and Sharapova were noted for their powerful, clean, relentless ball-striking. Henin and Mauresmo were acclaimed for their fluid, complete games and classic technique. The exceptional serving, power and athleticism of the Williams sisters were awe-inspiring. And Venus, Serena, Capriati, Henin and Sharapova were just as famous for their mental toughness and gritty competitiveness.
Players could only succeed at the top of the game during this era by being the complete package – technically gifted, mentally strong, supremely fit and with a distinctive style.
Yet women’s tennis has since mostly become a homogeneous wreck. Most players deliver mediocre serves (and a healthy dose of double faults) before trading metronomic ground strokes accompanied by loud (and unnecessary) grunts. Many are allergic to the net. And when things are not going well on court, they either smash their racquet, scream, cry, or haplessly call upon their coach for advice. Apart from Serena’s infamous meltdown at a line judge at the 2009 US Open, you would very rarely see greats of the women’s game reacting in this way to adversity.
A run of bad luck
The WTA’s woes are compounded when the tour is projected alongside the ATP World Tour at an increasing number of combined events, as men’s tennis is currently enjoying one of the strongest periods in its history. The talented “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray always support the ATP’s events by turning up and playing to their seeding, allowing them to regularly face off and develop compelling rivalries. Their consistent presence that has done wonders for shoring up the popularity of the men’s game.
The ATP has been fortunate that all four have remained healthy for several years. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the WTA. Its own “Big Four” of Venus, Serena, Henin and Clijsters – who have combined to win 28 of the past 39 majors – were unable to peak at the same time, each sidelined for lengthy periods during their careers due to injury, illness and retirement. Throw in Sharapova’s lengthy absences through shoulder surgery, and you have your five most talented and marketable players missing from the action. The standard of tennis – and fan interest – inevitably plummets.
Consider this. When Serena faced Henin in the 2007 Miami final, it was their first meeting in nearly four years. When Henin took on Venus in the 2007 US Open semifinals, it had been almost five years since their last match. The Clijsters-Serena battle in the 2009 US Open semifinals was the pair’s first meeting in six-and-a-half years. And they haven’t met since. When these women go head-to-head the standard is fantastic. But the WTA has been hurt by the fact that it hasn’t happened often enough.
The combined Mutua Madrid Open highlighted the stark contrast that currently exists between the ATP and WTA tours. Six of the top eight men’s seeds reached the quarterfinals and the top three progressed to the semifinals. The final showcased a battle between the world’s best two players on a packed centre court. Yet five of the eight women’s quarterfinalists were unseeded, and none of the top three even progressed to that stage. According to tennis.com the final was contested “at times before just hundreds of spectators” and was won by the unheralded No.16 seed Petra Kvitova. The women’s event didn’t seem to inspire much excitement in the Spanish capital.
Will Kvitova go the way of last year’s Madrid winner Aravane Rezai, and fade into obscurity after a brief taste of success? Possibly not. Kvitova is a little different in that she has enjoyed relatively sustained success in the past 12 months, rising from world No.61 to inside the Top 10 and capturing three titles in 2011. Her on-court demeanor is cool, calm and composed, her lefty serve is a weapon, her ground strokes are among the biggest in the game, and her fitness and conditioning are vastly improved. Great results at Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Paris Indoors and Madrid show she can play well across all surfaces. Only time will tell how the 21-year-old performs when she begins defending all of those ranking points.
Julia Goerges also stands out. The rangy 22-year-old has been extremely impressive on clay this year, reaching the quarters in Charleston before recording a stunning victory on home soil at Stuttgart, taking out top-tenners Azarenka, Stosur and Wozniacki on the way. She has all of the tools – effective serve, booming ground strokes, an attacking mentality and great athleticism – to succeed on the tour. Her run to the semifinals in Madrid (where she was stopped by Azarenka) saw her break into the Top 20 for the first time.
And what of Azarenka? There have never been any questions about her talent. Yet having threatened to become a Grand Slam winner and dominant force before, she failed to deliver, and a combination of injuries and mental struggles saw her plummet from world No.6 to No.18 by July 2010.
But she has since recovered, and in style. The 21-year-old Belarusian has been the form player during the past few months, capturing her second Miami title, winning in Marbella, and reaching the Madrid final. She’s won 19 of her past 22 matches, a surge in form that she has attributed to an improved mentality – apparently she now enjoys herself more on the court. This new mentality clearly went out of the window when she burst into tears at the trophy presentation after losing in Madrid. But hopefully it was a mere aberration.
With experience at the top level, a game that suits all surfaces and a newfound maturity, Azarenka is best positioned to take control of a weakened tour and establish some much needed authority over proceedings. And with the most wide-open Roland Garros event in history approaching, a big shot of credibility and consistency into the arm of the WTA couldn’t come soon enough.
Matt Trollope is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He has covered the past four Australian Opens for the tournament’s official website.