Is the WTA in Crisis?

Updated: May 13, 2011

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.”

Barren landscape

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 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?

Halcyon days

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 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.

Looking ahead

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.


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19 Legacy Comments

  1. anythingbutlove

    May 13, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    I wouldn’t expect more consistent play, or better production out of the Williams’ sisters because they are at the end of their career. Serena’s 13 (or 14) majors not enough for you? What’s Venus at 8 or 9?

    I’m a Henin fan, not a Williams fan so I wouldn’t know. One more point. Women younger than the Williams sisters have retired so saying (or implying) that they somehow must shoulder a greater workload in order for the tour to move forward….
    Look, what about Ivanovic and her consistency? as a former number one shouldn’t she be mentioned in the context of those who could help the long term future of the tour by contributing more?

    How many times are people going to say that the tour is soft and the top ten is soft? Every other self proclaimed critic is missing the obvious. Clijsters is an exceptional athlete. If Clijsters was African American then people would casually use terms such as “physically gifted” and “naturally athletic”. Her ability to comeback is an exception, not the standard. Everyone looks at her success but does anyone notice that Clijsters been injured at least twice since her return? and hasn’t been at all the majors.

    If the tour is so easy to walk away from and successfully return to then where is Henin’s Wimbledon trophy? Show me.

    Where is Lindsay Davenport and how many majors did she win in her last comeback attempt?

    What about Hingis. Was her comeback effort a sweeping success? She returned and just stomped all over the tour right?

    Look, there is a lot of merit to articles that are critical of the top players being inconsistent and how the tour could benefit if there were more dominant players at the top. But apparently the tour is solid enough that Wozniacki (and I’m a fan of hers too) has, thus far, been denied a major.

    Critics and commentators of the sport want it both ways.

    When Clijsters succeeds it’s the tour….the tour must be weak. But no one credits the strength of the field or the level of competition at majors when Wozniacki, Dementieva (or other talented players) go without a major.

    I have more to say about this subject. I could write a whole article about my concerns. The comments made about the top players rarely facing each other, those are valid points. In some ways the tour calendar has changed and some have expressed the hope that the changes might help the top players stay healthier longer (thus, miss less tournaments).

    On the other hand, years ago Sharapova posted a rant (she later withdrew from her website. I don’t have the full article to quote) in which spoke about the demands the WTA places on the players for 3-5 hours photo shoots the day before a big match. Sharapova also discussed being obligated to agree to certain tournaments and then (after fans buy tickets) withdrawing and claiming to have an injury. So, it surprises me that tennis commentators don’t often bring this up or at least include this in articles that discuss top payers being no-shows at various events.

  2. Andrew Broad

    May 14, 2011 at 6:00 am

    A crisis is not a low point but a turning point. Women’s tennis is going through a transition at the moment, and that makes it incredibly exciting. Several of the highly ranked players who have yet to win Majors will be the superstars whom we will look back on in another 8 years.

  3. Marine

    May 14, 2011 at 11:05 am

    I think that there is a crisis. Crisis in the media which desperately need something to write about and dooming WTA has proven to be a good topic.
    Womens’ tennis has a lot of excitement to offer and unlike Ms Vicario I am sure that people know the current world no.1 by name.

  4. tennis fan

    May 15, 2011 at 7:59 am

    When I was a child watching Steffi carve out a lagacy I doubt will ever be bettered, my parents and grandparents would say “It was better in Jimmy Connors day; it was better with Mac”. Every generation looks back and says it was better when they were young.

    I have to say, I think the author of this post has completely missed the point. The current generation is evolving; honing their craft. This takes time and there is real joy and intregue in how the players rise and rise – or not. Yes, the tour has it’s problems, but I doubt it will ever be a perfect situation for everyone.

    Why not focus on the actual personalities and the way they are developing and lend some support to womens’ tennis instead of just bashing it at every opportunity? If the fans gain a deeper understanding of tennis today, they are more likely to buy tickets and tune in. If not, then I am afraid you as a writer are not doing your job.

  5. Donna

    May 16, 2011 at 9:47 am

    I am a big fan of the Evert/Navratilova rivalry, and of superstars like Kim Clisters, who consistently play in finals and win majors, but not so much a fan of the Williams sisters. While television and other media “sell” the big names to attract casual fans who only know a few at the top, I think the most avid fans enjoy seeing the underdogs and up-and-coming stars winning titles and doing well. Just think about how refreshing it was to see Li Na at the Australiain Open this year. I also found it very thrilling and satisfying to watch Francesca Schiavone play Sam Stoser in the French Open final. Seeing the same big players in the finals every time is a little boring and I enjoy the suspense and unpredictability of the WTA now. However, I have to say that I never get tired of seeing Federer win titles!

  6. Shannon

    May 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    I can’t say for sure if the “crisis” is international but women’s tennis is certainly in a critical state in the US. Twenty five years ago there were about 29 womens pro circuit events; many with qualifying draws as well. What do we have now? Family Circle, Bradenton and the CA tourney that almost folded….?
    It is true each generation tends to look back and credit the past with more excitement,more glamour and maybe that’s a flaw. But it can’t be denied that super stars like Evert, Navratilova, Graf, Capriati, Seles put bottoms in seats. People wanted to see them and see them play. They were distinguishable and interesting –as are the Williams sisters. And though she never won a title at all– Kournikova probably filled more stadiums than the entire currentWTA roster combined!
    Tennis is show biz–and when it’s not; it might as well be stock car racing. Women’s tennis here sorely needs someone with the star power of the aforementioned players. Evert inspired a generation of girls who emulated her ponytail and her two handed backhand– with the Williams sisters close to retirement, who is there in the USA that is even vaguely interesting as a player or a person?
    What foreign player is really a draw–maybe Sharapova. Or not– it’s hard to imagine anyone playing now creating the furor of Seles when she missed Wimbledon in the early 90′s or generating the publicity of Capriati’s turbulent teenage years.
    Instead we have an almost indistingushable group of players, none with werewithall to maintain dominance on the court and none withe flair to create interest off court.

  7. Peter Simmons

    May 16, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    How Mr Trollope could write this article without mentioning Martina Hingis is amazing.
    One of the biggest drawcards in the game, especially at the Australian Open, does not get amention from this writer.
    Her battles with playersl like the Williams’, Henin , Clisters, Davenport etc; were great spectacles and brought the spectators in droves.
    What is killing the WTA is the power game and until the art and class of players like Martina Hingis return, it will continue to decline.

    Hingis and Davenport playing Doubles in the Legends at Wimbledon and French Open will draw bigger crowds than most of the Seeded Players.

  8. Aussie TEK

    May 16, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    The elite player that said WTA is in crisis need to women up and say their name. There is no crisis in WTA. The lack of no grand slam doesn’t reduce anything Caroline has done and she have become #1 in world without grand slams. Martina has run her mouth alot about #1 players that haven’t won grand slams she need need to close her big mouth and learn math. Grand Slam is 2000 pts but winning 2 smaller tourneys at 1000 pts each is same point total. I have more respect for players that play alot of tourneys during the year instead of the bare minimum. Get Bum Caroline and stay at #1. Kim said it best last year when she said Caroline would win a grand slam soon. I have alot of respect for Mum Kim.

  9. O.Harris

    May 16, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Peter, you evidently only skimmed the article superficially!

    It’s an excellent article which eloquently raises several very important points, which no-one can really argue with. I am a die-hard fan of women’s tennis; I’d love to rubbish this article, but unfortunately Matt is simply stating what we all know in our guts.

    How many times have you seen a draw in the last few years in which all the seeds made it through to the quarters? The only consistent thing in the women’s game recently has been the sheer, glaring inconsistency! It’s all flash-in-the-pan tennis, with the odd fabulous match & the total absence of heated rivalries.

    How tragic it has been to see Sveta, Ana, Dinara, Jelena et al, tumbling or struggling in the rankings. OK, so now there are signs of life,.. Rome, for example!
    I wish these 4 & Maria were back in the TOP 5!
    I wish Caro would win 2 Grand Slams in a row & shut everyone up.
    I wish……..!

  10. Alice

    May 16, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    @PeteSimmons You say, “Hingis and Davenport playing Doubles in the Legends at Wimbledon and French Open will draw bigger crowds than most of the Seeded Players”

    There is fashion or illness these days for nostalgia. We have an aging affluent tennis-going population.. this partly explains the extraordinary appeal of those seniors matches. In itself not necessarily a bad thing.

    It’s up to the WTA to work at connecting with a young audience, and that’s what Stacey Allaster and her team are trying to do.

  11. Alan

    May 17, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Let me emphasize at the start – I am a fan of women’s tennis right now because of the “lack of dominance” by a select few players.

    I love that there is no “given winner” before the match begins. I mean, isn’t that why the game is actually played? Doesn’t it still hold true that any given player can be victorious on any given day? May not the best player (today) still have a chance to win? If not, then participation becomes only an exercise in garnering points for rankings, pursuing titles, and occasionally depositing a check in the bank.

    I have no deep, all-encompassing knowledge and background that some who are posting likely have regarding the “inside stories behind the game”. No doubt I don’t know the entire history of the great rivalry matches of years past, or how they supposedly are absent from today’s game. I am only speaking my mind as a fan of the game right now – and I love the game the way it is today! Now, if that seems short-sighted in light of what some are proclaiming to be dismal times for the WTA, then I hope that someone much more in touch than I will step in and “save the Tour” – if it indeed needs saving.

    Thank you Andrew, Marine, tennis fan, Donna, Shannon, Aussie TEK, and Alice for your comment postings to this article. I agree with each one of you on multiple points. So why is it that tennis fans like you and I don’t seem to get our voices heard, or opinions counted, beyond an obscure posting on a fan website? I hope comments like yours and mine find their way to someone who really cares about the present and future of women’s tennis.

    In the meantime, I am going to continue to tune in (on my newly acquired Tennis Channel station) to watch some of the most interesting tennis, played by some of the most intriguing players, from some of the most far-reaching parts of the world, with some of the most inspiring stories of triumphs through some of the most adverse conditions, with the assistance of some of the most supportive friends and family (and, in some cases, people who just heard of a player’s needs and wanted to help), until someone steps in to stop all this “non-domination” madness – and that is likely when I’ll stop watching women’s tennis. I mean, after all, if you already know who is going to win, what’s the point in playing the game?

  12. Sharon Adam

    May 17, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    May 17, 2011

    I have been a tennis fan of both women’s tennis and mens tennis since the late sixties, early seventies starting at the Forest Hills Stadium in New York.

    I have followed the growth of women’s tennis since then until now. I have been disappointed for about 3 years now. It is not just the fact that we have the Williams sisters who have been carrying the “load” and for the Americans in tennis. There is one of the problems. We have lost the continued growth of women’s tennis when it comes to the
    US. It seems as though there is very little interest unless they get endorsements. We lost the proud feelings and interest in the players especially when we really don’t know them now. It’s like how Hollywood would promote their “stars” when the movie industry had stars and they promoted them, used them for everything. This took place up until the past 10 years, as Hollywood stars are not..and will not be anymore.
    I hope that the WTA does something to try and get more Americqn
    women back and involved. Right now the fans of women’s is leaving and don’t watch tennis as much as we did.
    Men’s tennis also has the same problem, the lack of interest on the part of American players. Now it seems that tennis is played just for the money and they leave. Pride in the game is drifting away as we see the women’s tennis , American players, drifting away, and is no longer the great watch on TV as it was almost 10 years ago.

  13. Tom

    May 21, 2011 at 1:41 am

    I love(d) women’s tennis. Yes, it’s past tense. There are new stars coming up, but the issue isn’t with them. It’s the coasting by the WTA and tennis media in general. There is apathy, but the snide comments about injured players, retired players, and legends isn’t going to endear nor forge any bond with the real tennis fans. The future has finally caught up from the Larry Scott WTA pimping agenda of taking glamour over substance and real tennis ablility.

  14. Marine

    May 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    You raised an interesting point, Sharon. Maybe this article should be not about crisis in WTA but a crisis in USTA. I think to focus just on American players would not be fair because tennis is an international sport. The cream of the crop are now non-American players who have great games to watch so it’s a bit of a shame that you have little interest in them just because they’re not from the US.

  15. Barb

    May 23, 2011 at 7:27 am

    I think Alan is right – it’s a great sport when the depth at the top is so great. It’s makes for real competition. On the other hand, rivalries are fun, but I for one, had doubts regarding whether the Williams sister ‘thing’ wasn’t a bit contrived. Sharipova is an instant draw because of her glamour (obviously), but her grunting is SO ridiculous and SO annoying that I cannot sit through ANYof her matches. The beauty of sports in general, is to watch seemingly effortless play, knowing how hard these athletes work, day in, day out, at their craft. Watching Sharipova and being reminded of sounds one would normally associate with a bathroom and severe constipation, just isn’t pleasant. (‘d rather watch snow on the screen. Which means I’m watching 1/2 a draw, and that doesn’t hold my interest.

  16. schroeds

    May 28, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I think the recent upsets at the french open really highlight the validity of this post. Really a lot to be worried about in womens tennis.

  17. O.Harris

    May 29, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    so true! Roland Garros = perfect example of the point he’s making.

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  19. raimun

    May 30, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Very well constructed article. I realize you are a big tennis fan.

    I think you only have one part of reason.

    In my opinion, average level of circuit raises and some top players improves his variety, comes more often into the net or change the pace with lobs or dropshots.

    The main problem for me is not the lack of a dominant player, the problem is the lack of GREAT matches in big stadiums in big nigths……lately almost all GS finals are very short, no emocion. One player wins in two easy sets, one hour of time…..