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.