I wrote last year that 2011 was a good year for the WTA. I felt this way because Petra Kvitova looked like she would be a contender for multiple years, Na Li helped tennis expand into a market of over 1 billion people, Sam Stosur added a Grand Slam champion to the great Aussie tradition, and Maria Sharapova was once again back in the mix.
I have not written a ton about the WTA. Some could consider this to be me automatically liking men’s tennis better than women’s tennis. This is not the case. I have been following tennis consistently since 1985. I vividly remember Hana Mandlikova defeating Martina Navratilova at the 1985 US Open final. I became an immediate Steffi Graf fan watching her push Martina hard in the 1986 US Open semifinal round. The 1992 Monica Seles – Graf clash at the French Open that ended 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 in Seles’ favor was far better viewing for most fans than Jim Courier’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 thrashing of Petr Korda at the same event. My lack of coverage of the WTA over the past few years has a lot to do with how confusing and disjointed the women’s game has been at a time when men’s tennis is producing epic matches and all-time great players. I think order is being restored on the women’s side of the sport, and I could not be more pleased with this development.
2012: A Much Better Year
2012 has been an even better year for the WTA. Victoria Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title and joined Petra Kvitova as a contender for the foreseeable future. Azarenka claimed the #1 ranking and the Australian Open title. Azarenka went on an undefeated streak that did not quite live up to Nole’s from 2011, but it was a streak that had to be respected.
Maria Sharapova joined the party by winning her first French Open title and returning to #1. After years of players being ranked #1 without a Grand Slam title in the past 52 weeks or no Grand Slam titles period, Azarenka and Sharapova have created continuity between tennis’ top ranked players and the winners of tennis’ top events.
The old arrangement made top ranked players look like caretakers while part-time players collected the biggest prizes at tennis’ most visible events. In short, casual fans and even long-time tennis fans were often left scratching their head when looking at the WTA Tour.
Now, Sharapova and Azarenka are in a race to see who finishes 2012 ranked #1. Petra Kvitova has not played great at smaller events in 2012, but she is 10-2 in Grand Slam play this year. Petra is 1 slam away from creating another trivalry. The crowded summer of an Olympic year, held at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club no less, should give Azarenka, Sharapova and Kvitova a chance to prove who is #1 in a way that makes the ranking more meaningful than it has been in years.
Projected Winners in BOLD
There is a slate of interesting matches for all three events. Here are my picks:
1 Rafael Nadal vs. 9 Fernando Verdasco – Rafa should win this match in a fairly straightforward manner. Verdasco did stage a classic with Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open, but I would be shocked if Verdasco offered that much resistance in 2012.
3 David Ferrer vs. 11 Milos Raonic – Milos’ serve is the biggest weapon possessed by the three semifinalists not named Rafa. It takes weapons to beat Rafa, and I would love to see that final (one in which I would pick Rafa to win), but I think Ferrer advances.
1 Victoria Azarenka vs. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska – I could say law of averages makes Aga due for a win vs. Vika, but I will stick with the world number one to advance.
2 Maria Sharapova vs. 3 Petra Kvitova – I think Petra is the more natural athlete and on clay that makes a big difference.
1 Gilles Simon vs. Matthias Bachinger – Simon continues his Monte Carlo form with a win.
Fabio Fognini vs. Attila Balazs – Fognini is a solid clay court player so I expect him to advance.
3 Good Tennis Videos
*** Final Highlights ***
Plus the 3 videos below
1. Day 5 Highlights from the WTA Championships
(I will add Day 6 Highlights when the WTA Posts Them).
2. Rafael Nadal Highlights
Rafa playing some great visceral points.
3. Stefan Edberg vs. Boris Becker The Masters 1989
Old school serve and volley tennis on a fast carpet surface.
The Sky is Falling?
Those who follow tennis have often made complaining about the admittedly convoluted leadership structures in professional tennis into an art from. Beyond that, the ATP Tour has enjoyed a lot of continuity among top contenders since 2004. This continuity has allowed for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to be marketed globally. The male side of the draw at big events has typically had top talent competing late into tournaments. To make matters worse, the WTA has not had a consistent final weekend draw such as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf to serve as a counter balance to sometimes one-sided early round matches. Women’s tennis has been hurt by a rash of injuries, burn-outs and early retirements that have mangled the tour’s one-time clockwork consistency.
2011 Worked Out Well
Kim Clijsters despite a lot of hard luck later in 2011 posted her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. She defeated Li Na in a competitive final. Li Na representing a country with a population of over 1 billion did not hurt the WTA or the Australian Open. Clijsters solidified her status as a historically significant champion. The French Open witnessed Li Na win her first Grand Slam singles title. The importance of the Chinese market for tennis cannot be overstated. Li Na splitting with her coach and posting patchy results since Paris is not going to completely deflate what was a monumental win for tennis. Francesca Schiavone reaching a second consecutive French Open final also removed concerns about her 2010 title being a fluke. Petra Kvitova winning Wimbledon added an aggressive-minded contender for future majors. Once again Kvitova has posted patchy results since winning her first major. Still, she plays a good game and should/might be a consistent contender in 2012 and beyond. Maria Sharapova’s Wimbledon runner-up and French Open semifinal resurrected the career of one of tennis’ most recognized players. The US Open also produced a champion in Sam Stosur from a country with great tennis tradition. Her title also perhaps adds a consistent contender on the WTA Tour for the next 2-4 years. Serena Williams’ winning summer run and US Open runner-up finish offered a similar story to Sharapova’s return to the rank of the contenders on tour. Caroline Wozniacki has also continued to be consistent on tour even if she has not yet won a major title.
At the end of the day, two players with great name recognition rebounded while three new Grand Slam champions were crowned that offer something of value to the WTA and ITF women’s events. Women’s tennis is still looking for a super-consistent player who also wins Grand Slam titles. The next Graf or Navratilova has not emerged. Still, Li Na winning the French Open and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova playing relevant tennis again makes 2011 a good year for the women’s game. Stosur, Kvitova, Wozniacki and Schiavone’s results in 2011 are also pluses going forward.
Work Left to be Done
Some things still need to go well for the women’s game to reclaim some lost territory.
- A consistent player committed to a full-time schedule, such as Wozniacki, needs to win several major titles. Kim Clijsters winning three out of six slams in her comeback proves this is possible. Novak Djokovic winning seven non-Grand Slam titles in 2011 helped to tie the ATP Tour’s weekly events into the larger Grand Slam picture. If Serena Williams wins multiple majors while playing fewer than ten total tournaments, the normal portion of the tour seems irrelevant.
- Players who break through and win majors need to become consistent forces on tour. Ana Ivanovic’s disappearing act cannot be the blueprint for Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur. At least one of those three players needs to be in contention at (nearly) every event she enters in 2011.
- The Hindrance Rule may need to be expanded to encompass grunting. There is clearly a big element of gamesmanship in the grunting and shrieking on tour. Fans seem to be turned off by it, and without fans these events would turn into highly skilled weekend hacker sessions at a park. I am not advocating mob rule, but the shrieking is hurting the sport period.
- Serena Williams needs to take some ownership of her role as an elder stateswoman on tour. I did not think her 2011 US Open outburst was all that bad or shocking. She should have avoided saying, “avoid me” to the umpire, but far, far worse things have been said on court. Still, the 2009 outburst was so bad that Serena needs to take her remaining years on tour to try to mend some fences that need not have been ruptured. Serena has absorbed her fair share of unwarranted criticism and bad breaks from officials and that damage need not be mended (We have a challenge system now because of a terrible error in one of her matches.) Still, the 2009 incident was bad and any ripple effects from that behavior should be addressed.
- Victoria Azarenka needs to find a way to round out some corners of her game and win a major in the next two years. She simply has too much game to be ranked so highly yet have only reached one Grand Slam semifinal. If Azarenka and Wozniacki start winning majors, women’s tennis would be in a much better place. They are of the right age to take the weekly tour reigns from the still relevant Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. If those four players are near the top and Li Na regains her form while Stosur has Australia reinvested in women’s tennis, the WTA would see an upsurge in popularity.