The 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament is now in the second week, and stars like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams will be looking to propel their legacies further into the stratosphere by winning another title.
But while tennis fans have every reason to expect a marquee, evenly contested matchup of Djokovic versus Federer—or a slightly less appealing showdown between Djokovic and Andy Murray—in the men’s final, most are not looking forward to the last women’s match with the same anticipation.
It’s partly Serena’s fault.
Even at age 30, her lethal first serve and other weaponry still can overwhelm all the other top players, as she showed in losing a combined four games to world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and world No. 3 Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and final of the 2012 London Olympics.
Azarenka and Sharapova have both advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament and, even though defending champion Samantha Stosur is also in the top half of the draw, it would be a surprise if one of them is not in Saturday night’s final.
Unfortunately, it would NOT be much of a surprise at all if either is trounced again by Serena when she gets there.
The problem, however, is not that Serena, whose No. 4 ranking reflects her lack of interest in minor events, is virtually invincible at her best.
Rivalries tend to be a bit lopsided.
Martina Navratilova also was practically unbeatable in the 1980s, winning 12 of 17 Grand Slam matches against main rival Chris Evert that decade, while Steffi Graf never lost a match to Monica Seles at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open while amassing a huge haul of Slam titles in the 1990s.
Serena dominated the rivalry with her sister Venus en route to her 2002-2003 “Serena Slam,” losing just one set to her older sibling in those four consecutive Grand Slam finals.
The problem is that lately, Serena plays someone different every time she reaches a big final. That could happen again in the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament.
In the 13 Grand Slam events she entered between the 2008 U.S. Open and this year’s Wimbledon, she reached the final round seven times and played seven different players: Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Vera Zvonareva, Stosur and Agnieszka Radwanska.
Compare that state of affairs with the ATP World Tour.
The consistent matchups among its elite players in the final or semifinals of Grand Slam tournaments give the men’s circuit an identity. When we think of the ATP, we think of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic and the golden era they have jointly built.
When we think of women’s tennis, we think “Serena’s too good.” And that’s not good.
The WTA Tour needs the same players meeting over and over again on the biggest stages, whether those rivalries involve Serena in her twilight years or not.
On the bright side, the WTA Tour boasts a handful of young, talented players at or near the very top of the rankings, including Azarenka, 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Radwanska. Sharapova also should remain in the mix for a while longer, albeit with an unreliable serve.
Do any of them have what it takes to reach Grand Slam semifinals or finals consistently across all surfaces in the coming years?
I won’t hold my breath considering the rapid rise and fall in recent years of Safina, Zvonareva, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki, but I think Azarenka, winner of this year’s Australian Open, has the best chance.
Just entering her prime at age 23, she moves extremely well for her 6’0” height and possesses a game devoid of a weakness. Like Djokovic, she lacks a “wow” shot or a huge serve, but she applies constant pressure on her opponents with her athleticism and quality of shot from the baseline.
There’s simply no reason why—like Djokovic—she can’t have nearly the same success on clay and grass as she’s had on hard courts.
If Azarenka can pull that off, Serena sticks around for a few more years and a player like Kvitova can take her game to another level, we might just have one or more rivalries in women’s tennis.
And perhaps Serena and Azarenka can help usher in this new era by meeting in the final of the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament.