There was a power vacuum left at the top of the women’s rankings when Justine Henin retired earlier this year, and we all wondered who would step up and be the next dominant No. 1 on the WTA. Truth be told, we go into 2009 with the same question. There are many suitors, but for the first time in a long time the top spot is wide open for whoever wants to step up and take it.
Jelena Jankovic finished the year as the No. 1 ranked player on the women’s player, but you can’t help but wonder whether she really believes she is the best. She is still without a Grand Slam, and it makes one wonder if she is No. 1 because of the quantity of tournaments played, as opposed to the quality of her victories.
Jankovic won in Rome on the clay for her first title of the season, and she routinely goes deep into all the draws, but the majors have been her undoing. The feeling among the tennis pundits, fans and media alike is that your No. 1 ranking should have some (at least one) Grand Slam(s) attached to it.
I am not saying she didn’t have good results or win titles.
She had nice tournament wins in Beijing, Stuggart, and Moscow, all on the hard courts, to go along with her win on clay in Rome. She has had sucess, but what is stopping her from breaking through on the big stages?
Jankovic relies on her tennis IQ, finesse, and consistency to overwhelm her opponents rather than power. The other women at the top of the rankings rely more on power, so if she is matched with a power player late in the draw and they are on their game, she will be at a disadvantage.
This being said, I believe it won’t be long before she breaks though. She has a good time when she is playing, she is never out of a match, and she plays with confidence and intelligence.
The one player who probably made the biggest strides in 2008 was Dinara Safina. She dominated the hard-court season in winning the U.S. Open series, and has consistently contended in most of the tournaments she was in.
Safina matured as the year went on and was in control of her emotions for the most part. She played with a confidence and determination, winning a number of close matches against quality competition. She is definitely a contender for the top spot in 2009.
It will be interesting to see how Maria Sharapova bounces back after missing a good portion of last year with a rotator cuff injury. She was at No. 3 when she got hurt, and opted not to have surgury. If her rehab went well and she can serve consistently she will definitely be in the mix. Some of Sharapova’s shortcomings have been exposed, though.
If she isn’t serving well the other parts of her game go south at times. She does not move as well as many of the other women on the tour and has to take control of the points early to be effective. She doesn’t play defensive tennis well. When her ground game is on, she doesn’t have to play defense. She simply overwhelms her opponents with her power and precision. Very few on the WTA can stay in a match with Sharapova when she has everything working.
I would not label her a disappointment, but many pictured Sharapova being No. 1 and dominating the game years ago. She does have three slams to her credit since 2004, and has plenty of time to get more; but she has either been over-hyped, or mentally doesn’t quite have what it takes to maintain the level of excellence needed to stay No. 1.
Sharapova needs to develop and expand her game. She needs to come forward more and become proficient at the net to get cheap points.
That will be a challenge because she is not a very good athlete as far as movement goes. If she does, then she could find herself back on top of the rankings again.
Venus and Serena Williams continue to be a threat in every slam they play in, and you can’t help but think that they are ones to beat in all the slams, with the possible exception of the French Open. They are now older than all of the other main contenders on the womens side and it is a testament to them that they are still playing at the level that they are.
They have been much criticized over the years for not playing as much as the other women on tour, for their father, Richard Williams, and for handling their careers their way. They are outspoken and dance to the beat of their own drum, but after everything that has transpired on the women’s tour in the last six years, the pundits are finally admitting that they got it right.
The wear and tear mentally and physically year after year has taken a toll on many of the players on the tour and have forced top players such as Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin to retire when they were at the top of their games. The Williams sisters never played hurt and paced themselves throughout each season which is paying dividends now as they are still winning slams and seem to be enjoying themselves.
Their outside interests also seem to be not only financially rewarding, but mentally therapeutic for them as well. They have stood the test of time. There seems to be little doubt that both of them could return to the top spot in 2009. How can we forget how a sub par and out of shape Serena Williams dismantled Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open, and how Venus Williams seems to be invincible at Wimbledon.
They have learned to cut down on their unforced errors a little, while still being aggressive and coming forward to finish points. Serena’s serve is the key to her game. When serving well she has the best in the business and it sets up her unequalled an powerful ground strokes. She is better at serving out of more tough spots against top players than any one else.
Venus’ serve is dangerous as well, but it has been known to fail in the middle of matches. Her forehand also tends to break down during matches as well, but most of the time she gets it together in time to prevail.
If you look at the top women on the tour the Williams sisters are still the best athletes, even at this stage in their careers.
With all due respect to the other women, they are still the best all around tennis players on the tour. Henin was the only player that was consistently beating them, and she is gone. Venus and Serena, and rightfully so, may be more geared up for the majors more than anything else.
Cementing their legacy by adding to their Grand Slam totals may trump getting the number one ranking. Who can argue with them if that is the case? We tend to measure the greatness of the players by how many slams they win any way.
If Serena is serious about getting results and commits herself to being No. 1, I believe she will get there, hands down. Injuries and apathy could be the only things that slow the sisters down in 2009.
It is hard to figure out Ana Ivanovic. It is obvious she has the game and the ground strokes to play with, and defeat anyone. She has proven that, but her mental colapse after winning the French and losing the finals in Australia has to make you think.
Breaking through at a slam is one thing.
Being No. 1 and staying there when the bulls-eye is on your back is something else.
The pressure of being in the spotlight is not easy for everyone to handle. Some thrive on it and it doesn’t affect their games, but if you can’t you can easily lose your nerve and fold under the pressure of expectations.
Ivanovic is a great tennis player, has a great personality and graciously put everything in perspective after her early round defeats in the majors. Her overall game and tennis smarts during the matches give her the ability to beat the Williams’ and Sharapovas of the world, but until she proves she can get to the top and stay there, she won’t be a favorite in my book to maintain a No. 1 ranking.
Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova are solid top ten players, and should stay there because their consistent play and the fact that they play a lot, but they are not serious contenders for the top spot. Kuznetsova has had problems breaking through in key matches in the slams, and even though Dementieva is an excellent athlete, she doesn’t seem to have the goods to win the slams.
I believe four women have a chance to spend most of the year in the top spot. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean they are the best. It just means that their results were consistent enough to get the ranking. Jankovic is a good example of that.
Sharapova has a shot if she is healed, ups her game, improves her movement, and her serve dominates.
Safina has a shot if she builds on what she did this year and works hard to improve every facet of her game. All she needs to do is take the next step.
Jankovic needs to win a slam to get her confidence going and that will propel her forward.
Serena Williams just needs to put the work in and be prepared. Nothing will be handed to her so she has to prepare thinking that if she doesn’t she will be defeated by a lesser opponent. She has to have a sense of urgency if she wants to get back on top and stay there.
They only thing that is sure about 2009 is that there is no clear cut No. 1 or dominant player. Only time will tell us who is ready to step into that role.