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Steve Flink: Questions Remain About Women's Game

11/1/2011 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

And so another year has come and gone in women’s tennis, and they have much to celebrate. The season commenced with Kim Clijsters securing a first Australian Open crown and a fourth major altogether in Melbourne, stopping the highly appealing Li Na in an entertaining and well played three set championship match. Over the winter and into the spring, a number of players distinguished themselves, but the next prize of consequence was taken by none other than Li Na herself. This time, Li established herself as the first Chinese player ever to capture a Grand Slam event, toppling Maria Sharapova in the semifinals and defending champion Francesca Schiavone in an absorbing final on the red clay of Roland Garros. At Wimbledon, the dynamically gifted Petra Kvitova—a left-hander with free flowing instincts and a shot making capacity few in her sport can match—took her first major style in absolute style, eclipsing Sharapova in a straight set final.  At the U.S. Open, a fourth Grand Slam tournament champion stepped forward as the Australian Samantha Stosur—arguably the most complete player in women’s tennis—stunned Serena Williams in the final.

That left only one more coveted title for the players to pursue. Last week in Istanbul, the top eight assembled for the season-ending TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships, and in the end it was Kvitova who claimed that prestigious crown, garnering back-to-back three set triumphs in the semifinals and final over Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. Those were high quality clashes, and it was a credit to Kvitova that she withstood stern opposition from those two rivals to come through and win a tournament of such importance. Kvitova thus finished her season with a burst of confidence, and by winning both Linz and Istanbul at the end of the year, the 21-year-old who finished 2010 at No. 34 in the world moved up no fewer than 32 places to No. 2, a status she deserved. Kvitova won six tournaments altogether across 2011, took her first major at Wimbledon, and validated that victory with her Istanbul win.

And yet, while there were indeed many positive developments in Istanbul, the fact remains that the women’s game remains hampered in many ways by a number of fundamental problems. At the top of the list is Wozniacki. For the second year in a row, the affable Danish 21-year-old has finished the season at No. 1 in the world without winning a major title. Wozniacki is a thorough professional, commendable in her straightforward manner, laudable with her desire to keep improving and moving beyond her past exploits toward larger and more lasting goals. But Wozniacki was a real disappointment in Istanbul. She won her opening match in three hard fought sets over Agnieszka Radwanska, the 22-year-old Polish player who has now concluded three of the past four years among the top ten in the world.

With that triumph, Wozniacki was off and running, seemingly on her way to at least the semifinals of the elite year end event, and hopefully ready to put herself in a position to win the title. But she lost her last two round robin matches, falling to Kvitova and Vera Zvonareva. After recording her lone win in Istanbul over Radwanska, Wozniacki sealed the No. 1 world ranking for the year. But her inability to at least reach the penultimate round of the tournament was distressing. The best player in the world ought to be able to do better than that.

To be sure, Wozniacki had an extraordinary record of consistency in 2011, despite a few early round setbacks here and there. She won 63 of 80 matches, equaled her 2010 achievement of winning six tournaments across the season; week in and week out, her standards were higher than those of any other player. But the fact remains that she did not deserve the No. 1 ranking. Those who hold that high honor must win Grand Slam events, and Wozniacki was found wanting in that department. She was a semifinalist at the Australian and U.S. Opens, lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon, and fell in the third round at Roland Garros.

I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t good enough to make Wozniacki an authentic world champion. Wozniacki only resides at the top because no one else has played with the necessary reliability to supplant her. To longtime followers of women’s tennis, the notion of a player residing at No. 1 for two straight years despite never winning a Grand Slam tournament is disturbing to say the least. In fairness to Wozniacki, this is not the first time a world No. 1 has gone through the entire year without taking a major. Jelena Jankovic—a magnificent defensive player cut from much the same mold as Wozniacki—was No. 1 in 2008 despite not capturing a major. She got to the final of the U.S. Open that year. To this day, she has still not won a major, and she almost surely never will. Jankovic wore the No. 1 label by displaying the same remarkable week in, week out consistency as Wozniacki, but did not really belong in that elite category.

There are more examples. Martina Hingis took the No. 1 honor for 2000 but did not win a Grand Slam event that season. The same was true of Lindsay Davenport the following year, and the tall American garnered the No. 1 ranking again in 2004 and 2005 without winning majors in those seasons. But Hingis had won five majors from 1997-1999, and Davenport secured three Grand Slam events from 1998-2000. They had established their credentials already, although it was not a good thing for women’s tennis that they finished those other years at the top when they had not been in the Grand Slam winner’s circle. Wozniacki has to learn how to peak for the biggest tournaments, rather than acquiring other titles that don’t mean nearly as much. Her status as an enduringly great player will depend on that.

Meanwhile, there was more cause for consternation in the aftermath of Istanbul. Kvitova had a terrific tournament, and salvaged another big prize at the close of 2011. The hope here is that she will now start performing more dependably than was the case in the season that just concluded. She was only the third player to win that tournament in her debut, joining Maria Sharapova (2004) and Serena Williams (2001) in that category. She lifted her indoor hard court record to 19-0, demonstrating in the process that with no wind or sun, in ideal circumstances, her high risk game can thrive. But Kvitova went into a considerable slide after her Wimbledon triumph that was very disappointing to her biggest boosters.

In Toronto, Kvitova won one match, and that was also the case in her next appearance at Cincinnati. Most unacceptable of all, Kvitova self-destructed at the U.S. Open dismally, losing 7-6 (3), 6-3 to world No. 48 Alexandra Dulgheru in the first round. She then made it to the semifinals in Tokyo, lost early in her next tournament, and then took her titles in Linz and Istanbul. Kvitova is capable of doing better than that. As the world No. 2 for 2011, she owes it to herself and the game to win more frequently on her bad days, to prove that she is a top of the line match player, to play the game with more self-assurance and stability. She my choice for “Player of the Year” in 2011, but I hope she will alter her ways in 2012 and avoid any unnecessary slumps.

Let’s look at a few more examples. Li Na was the biggest story in women’s tennis over the first half of 2011. To reach two finals at the majors and come away with the world’s premier clay court crown was magnificent. But Li declined enormously thereafter. In her last eight tournament appearances, she won only six matches. In Istanbul, she did stop Sharapova in the round robin, but was in utter disarray during a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Stosur. She did not reach the semifinals in Istanbul. Perhaps Li—who will be 30 in February—has grown content after her great success in the first half of 2011. Maybe she has been nursing some hidden injuries, and has not been playing at full capacity. Whatever the case, Li Na during the second half of 2011 was a shadow of the player who brightened the landscape so much before then.

Now, let’s consider Stosur. Along with many other longtime observers, I had been surprised and disappointed that she had not followed up more convincingly on her exciting run to the final of the 2010 French Open, when she toppled both Justine Henin and Serena Williams before losing to Schiavone, who played perhaps the best big match of her career to take the title. Stosur had won only two tournaments in her entire pro career before she secured the 2011 U.S. Open. I hoped she might get into a regular winning pattern after her exploits in New York, but that was not the case. Here is a woman who has the most devastating kick serve in women’s tennis, the soundest conventional punch volley, a first rate inside-out forehand, and an improved two-handed backhand.

Stosur is a player who needs to remind herself how good she is. Sometimes I get the feeling she sells herself awfully short, and she seldom does herself justice. After the Open, she had a few early round losses, but did make it to the final of Osaka. In Istanbul, she had that one-sided win over Li Na, and she made it to the semifinals, which was no mean feat. She acquitted herself well against Kvitova before losing in the penultimate round. I’d like to see Stosur lift her game considerably to start the year “Down Under” in 2012 with a big splash. She did not win the U.S. Open by accident, and her performance against an off form Serena Williams was brilliant. But Stosur is yet another front line player who must start registering quality showings more frequently. Winning should breed winning, and Stosur at 27 should understand that.

It was a shame that Sharapova came into Istanbul nursing an injured ankle. She fought hard but lost for the first time in ten career meetings with Stosur by scores of 6-1, 7-5. Stosur lost her serve only once in that contest, and rallied remarkably from 1-4 down to take the second set. Sharapova also lost to Li Na before withdrawing from her last match with the recurring ankle problem. Sharapova had worked exceedingly hard all year long, and had approached Istanbul ranked second in the world. She slipped to No. 4 as both Kvitova and Azarenka passed her. Sharapova could well take a major in 2012, but it was too bad that did not happen this year. A triumph for the Russian at a Grand Slam event would have given the women’s game a considerable lift. Only Serena Williams can surpass Sharapova as a competitor, and she may well be the biggest drawing card in the women’s game worldwide. But she won her third and most recent major at the 2008 Australian Open. She needs to win more when it counts.

Last, but clearly not least, let’s look at Serena Williams, and her year. The American had been gone from the game for just shy of one full year, returning at Eastbourne. Serena understandably did not perform all that well on the grass at either Eastbourne or Wimbledon (although she made it to the fourth round at the All England Club), but she came alive over the summer and won two tournaments during the Olympus U.S. Open Series. Williams stormed into the U.S. Open final without the loss of a set, cutting down both Azarenka and Wozniacki along the way. Despite her shocking loss to a sublime Stosur, Williams had every reason to be proud of her comeback.

I believed that Serena would play a few more tournaments and try to qualify for Istanbul. She could have used a strong finish in 2011 to set the stage for a big and productive 2012. But Williams never played again after the Open. To me, that was inexplicable. Perhaps she was injured; perhaps not. But she had played so well during the summer that it would have made sense for her to sustain her momentum and keep competing hard. Williams played only six tournaments in 2012, winning two, reaching the final of the Open, taking 22 of 25 matches, moving back to No. 12 in the world at the end of the season. But the women’s game lost something substantial when she chose to take the autumn off and wait for 2012. And Williams did not enlarge her reputation by not playing after New York. The view here is that she was unprofessional in drifting away from the game again at a time when she was needed most.

Injuries had already taken Clijsters out of the mix. Henin had retired after her third round loss at the Australian Open. Venus Williams did not play a tournament after the U.S. Open. 2012 was a year of complexity for the women, a time when some players took their talent to new destinations, a period when others performed with surprising panache, a stretch when no one could easily anticipate what was going to happen next. But too much unpredictability becomes detrimental to the game. The women’s game has long thrived on great players who showed up every day ready to play, seldom had a letdown, and rarely gave less than a full effort. The great players of the past were professionals through and through. I hope in 2012 that all of the leading players do themselves justice, because that was not the case in the season that just passed us by.


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