Women's Tennis: The Dearth and the Disarray

Michael HaleyCorrespondent IJune 19, 2011

Caroline Wozniacki: Can't Win a major
Caroline Wozniacki: Can't Win a majorClive Brunskill/Getty Images

As tennis gets ready to be played in its Mecca, Wimbledon, let's have some down-and-dirty, baseline-to-baseline talk about the state of the women's game.

Because too often in sport, its fans, its media and its players delude themselves with dishonest talk. And, regarding being under a delusion: That's no way to be. Or, put succinctly: what is life without truth?

So, what's up with the women? Not much. Li Na, after her first grand slam victory at the French a couple of weeks ago, pontificated about how her triumph proved the “depth” of the women's game.

The tennis aficionado must say no to Na. As in, she's mistaken. If it proved anything, her win concretized the fact that the WTA top 20 is an erratic grouping—and just not very good.

From week to week any top women's player can all of a sudden lose their game. Or lose their health. Either way, top-20 women's players seem to disappear for periods or have their lengthy ups and downs.

Many had high hopes for Maria Sharapova at the French—could she morph into the “deliverer?”—but she was rather easily handled in the semis there; Francesca Schiavone, a finalist for the second straight year, has a mediocre record of 25-16 in 2011; Kim Clisters didn't even bother to get in shape for the French; the Williams sisters didn't show; Sam Stosur simply disappointed for the umpteenth time; and Caroline Wozniacki proved again she can't win a major.

Speaking of which, how is it—if the women's game is at some sort of peak—that Wozniacki can remain no. 1 for so long—since October 11, 2010—without winning a major?

To this issue: It is, rather, a testament to the poor quality of the women's side of the draw. Wozniacki, swept out of the French in the third round, has a 2011 record on clay of 19-4, but couldn't win the French. This says something about her tennis fiber.

Unfortunately, with the current WTA top competitors it is often a matter of lack of fiber and focus.

The French Open performance of world no. 2 Kim Clisters was so bad that it is hardly worth addressing. Clisters was beaten by the 114th-ranked player, Arantxa Rus, in the second round.

Clisters, in her announced last year on the tour, may not in reality last another month. In her last match on June 14 she lost to 82nd-ranked Romina Oprani at the Netherlands' Unicef Open.

To wit: When a top 5 player starts consistently or semi-consistently losing to players who are not used to being in the top 100, it's time to think about a new vocation. Well, at least Clisters is thinking about a new one. But perhaps she has already overstayed her welcome.

Serena Williams is seeded no. 7 at Wimbledon. This alone exposes the myth of “depth” in the women's game. Serena has been absented from the tour since seemingly forever, and actually since July 2010. But yet is seeded seventh.

Can one imagine a top player out for nearly one year and abruptly being seeded so high, say, in 1990? The year when Steffi, Monica, and Martina (Navratilova) were the top three? Or in 2001 when Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Jennifer Capriati, and Justine Henin comprised part of the year-end top 10 rankings?

No, sir. In either of these two cases it would not have been possible.

By the way: Where have you gone, Monica Seles? The tennis nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

The Russians, once so dominant in the women's game, have faded. As late as 2009, there were five Russian women in the year-end top 10: Safina, Kuznetsova, Dementieva, Azarenka, and Radwanska. Today, Azarenka, world no. 5, remains in the top 10, along with Vera Zvonareva, world no. 3, but both have won just one tournament in each of 2010 and 2011, respectively.

The Williams sisters are the best known women's tennis players. But their disposition for tennis is now unpredictable. Who knows what drama will define their game next? Further, Venus is not the same player she once was. She is barely top 20 caliber. Her voguish sister Serena is nowadays more corporate than incomparable. More fashion than unfazed.

Women's tennis was not too long ago relentlessly delectable. The time when one couldn't wait for a match. When we could endlessly discuss Monica, Steffi, Martina (Navratilova), Chris, and Jennifer. Or even when Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis had their way. The days when there was true “depth” in the game.

How can one tell if there is quality in a sport? Measure public anticipation. Assess public name recognition of the players. Determine, ironically, if there are dominant public figures in the sport that truly rise above all of the other competitors. Yes, these criteria are superficial, but decipherable.

No one is holding their breath waiting to see the women compete at 2011 Wimbledon.

Some more determinants of quality: Are there any players who are consistent winners at the big events?

When women's tennis was at its best, at least two, three, or four players were consistently winning majors, and a few more racquet swingers were real ongoing threats (“threatening” players such as Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Gabriela Sabatini, for example). Presently, anyone can come out of the blue—as did Li Na—and capture a title. That's false “depth.” It's real weakness.

According to reports, Caroline Wozniacki has not been too depressed following her loss at the French. Or more exactly, as extracted from Tennis.com: “World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki comes into Novak Djokovic’s press conference at [2011] Wimbledon and jokingly asks him about his now-broken 43-match winning streak and how he’s going to stop his one match-losing streak.” Implicitly, Wozniacki was joking about her own loss, as well.

One can see why Djokovic could laugh: He's got two majors and he has given the men's game new life and appeal. However, it's hard to imagine what Wozniacki found so humorous about her repetitious failure at Roland Garros.

Women's tennis: More folly than “depth.”