6/27/2012 7:00:00 PM
By Matt Cronin
WIMBLEDON - Women's tennis does not have a Big 3. It does not have a dominant No. 1, or two impenetrable rivals who consistently face off in Slam finals. What is does have is a new era where for the first time in at least Open Era history, it is possible to throw a good 10 players into the Grand Slam potential winners pot and not be sure who will be scooped out at the end. That's the case at 2012 Wimbledon, and could be the case for the next five years or so.
The Big 3 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 28 of the last 29 Slams. In the same 29-Slam period, 13 different women won major titles. Since Roland Garros 2005, when Nadal won his first major and the 28 of 29 run began for the men's Big 3, the women spread their wings. Roland Garros has had six different winners, the US and Australian Opens have had five each, Wimbledon has had four, with a new potential new one on tap this year.
So the accurate contention of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that men’s tennis was deeper than the women now rings false, certainly when it comes to the majors, and if you look at Masters Series results over the same period, you will also find that more women than men have won titles. During the late 1980s and 1990s, the “salad days” of Graf and Seles, analysts would laugh when the two said that there was real depth. But no one can afford to be dismissive of that theory now.
From 1976 to 1987, only four players held the No. 1 ranking. When Steffi Graf took over No.1 from Navratilova in 1991, she and just two other players -- Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario -- held it until 1997, when the cagey Martina Hingis took over. Then the Swiss, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati passed it around until 2002. From 2002 until 2008, there were seven different No. 1s.
From the time that the then baby-faced Ivanovic took over in June 2008 until today, there have been eight different No. 1s: that's one more than in the 21 -year-long period from 1976 to 1997, which in and of itself is solid proof of a much stronger and well-rounded WTA, at least in the near super-elite ranks.
One of the reasons for this increasing trend is that a once dominant group of two Americans and two Belgians no longer completely rule the roost: the Williams sisters are in their 30s and naturally declining after combining for 20 major singles titles since 1999; Kim Clijsters, who owns four Slams will retire after the US Open, Justine Henin who owns seven, retired for the second time in 2010. The generation right after that, which includes Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova have been unpredictable -- brilliant at times and disappointing in others.
And while the prospects of the current generation of young 20- something’s that include Aussie Open champ Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon titlist Petra Kvitova, former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 3 Aga Radwanska have come more into focus, none of them have the cool, calm and super confident personality that makes them predictably great on court.
Until around the start of the 21st century, the WTA has had dominant pairs or trios, beginning at the start of the Open Era with Margaret Court (24 Slam singles titles ), Billie Jean King (12) with Evonne Goolangong (7). Then came Chris Evert (18) Martina Navratilova (18) with flurries from Hana Mandlikova (4) and Tracy Austin (2). Graf (22) and Seles (9) and Sanchez (4) came in with Capriati (3). Then Hingis (5) was chased by the Williams sisters, as well as Lindsay Davenport (3) and Amelie Mauresmo (2). Before they could take the tour by the hair, the Belgians arrived.
There was certainly more depth to that generation than Graf's, and also a bit of emotional instability with Capriati taking a few years off due to burnout, Hingis and Henin briefly retiring for the same reason and then coming back. Clijsters also retiring due to injuries and a desire to start a new life off court and then returning as mom, and the Williams sisters on and off the tour due to a multitude of injuries and illness.
Fragility was omnipresent and that trend continued -- which was physical for some and mental for others. Sharapova arrived in 2004 and won Wimbledon and two other majors before her infamous 2008 shoulder surgery and then needed nearly another four years to win another Slam when she stormed to the Roland Garros crown earlier this month.
When No. 1 Henin retired in May 2008, she asked to be taking off the rankings chart. The delightful Ivanovic grabbed it by winning Roland Garros, but has been unable to reach a major semifinal since then. Jankovic reached one Slam final, got to No. 1 but never added to her counterpuncher’s frame enough to win a Slam. The powerful Safina reached No. 1 but got smoked in three Slam finals as she froze each time and eventually her career was ended by a broken back.
Then, as Serena and Venus played sporadically, the workhorse Wozniacki grinded her way to the top spot and stayed there for 67 weeks, consistently going deep at every tournament she contested outside of the Slams, where she came up short time and time again. But "Gen Caro" took a turn for the better when the less consistent but more talented Kvitova won 2011 Wimbledon, and at the start of this year, when the aggressive Victoria Azarenka -- who had been a basket case injury wise - got herself fit and passed her friend Wozniacki in the rankings by winning Australia.
But there is no guarantee that the new generation will be anywhere as near as strong enough as previous ones, which is perhaps why the WTA now looks so deep now. None of the aforementioned four can be compared to the Williams sisters or the Belgians, even at early stages in their careers.
Perhaps the reason why no new Big 3 on the WTA has emerged and that Serena, Clijsters and Sharapova are considered to be top-drawing favorites at 2012 Wimbledon is because the elite younger players have gaping holes in their games, which Nadal, Federer and Djokovic do not have and might be the reason why none of the younger men can break through.
Wozniacki just lost another titanic three setter, this time in a defeat to Tamira Paszek in the first round at Wimbledon, when she played the big points as poorly as she did in a marathon loss to Kaia Kanepi at Roland Garros. At the age of 21, Wozniacki has nowhere near the developed arsenal or the mental stability of a Graf, Hingis or Serena. The same could be said of her three peers.
But let's give the last word to the intelligent Ivanovic, who when I asked her whether the game is weaker then when she came up or stronger, went with the latter assessment.
"In a way I think the game evolved so much that these younger girls, they're just playing a lot more aggressive and freer," she said. "It's a dangerous game for top players, but it's definitely the future of the tennis."