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Steve Flink: State of the Women's Game

9/29/2008 12:41:00 AM

by Steve Flink

I love women's tennis. The female players have contributed mightily to the entertainment value of the sport, inspired followers all across the globe, and enriched our lives with their supreme talent, skills, and athleticism.

But I don't like much of what has happened with women's tennis over the course of this 2008 season. Let me explain.

The year started well when Maria Sharapova burst out of the blocks at the Australian Open, capturing her third career Grand Slam championship. Sharapova--- at the top of her game across that fortnight, crackling with intensity--- beat Justine Henin in the quarterfinals of that event with a devastatingly potent display, and then held back the charismatic Ana Ivanovic in a hard fought final. Sharapova seemed ready to celebrate a fully productive year.

It did not work out that way. By the spring, she had lost her edge, and by Wimbledon it was apparent that her shoulder problems had returned. Sharapova--- who lost rather tamely in the second round of Wimbledon 6-2, 6-4 to none other than world No. 154 Alla Kudryavtseva-- had to withdraw from the Olympic Games and the U.S. Open. She was sorely missed.

Henin, meanwhile, had stunned the tennis world with her announcement not long before Roland Garros that she was retiring. Here was a woman who had finished 2006 and 2007 at No. 1 in the world, a player who had secured four of the previous five French Open titles, a champion who had garnered seven majors across a sterling career. Henin's departure was a mystery in many ways. She had been a consummate professional, and now, as she approached her 26th birthday, she was gone. She was still No. 1 when she departed. Henin leaving in her prime was terrible news for all of us who deeply appreciated her high standards.

So Henin was out of the game, and Sharapova was forced to take considerable time away from tournament tennis. That gave Ivanovic a terrific opportunity to define herself as a genuine world champion. The popular Serbian--- always a favorite with galleries because she is so physically striking and her big hitting game is so dynamic and full of risks--- followed up on a fine showing in Australia by winning her first Grand Slam event at Roland Garros. Ivanovic was clearly an ascendant figure in her sport.

And yet, instead of using Roland Garros as a springboard toward more large triumphs, Ivanovic fell into a bad slump. She has not been the same confident player since then. Ivanovic played with utter apprehension at Wimbledon, falling in the third round to wild card Jie Zheng 6-1, 6-4. After a lackluster summer, she suffered another distressing loss, this one to qualifier Julie Coin in the second round of the U.S. Open. Coin-ranked No. 188 in the world-- toppled Ivanovic in three sets.

In all fairness to Ivanovic, she was injured and ailing through much of the summer stretch. After she lost again to Zheng in Beijing last week, she spoke of how she had played so few matches since her Roland Garros triumph. She complained of how her injuries had set her back, and said she felt ready at last to play at the peak of her powers again. I hope that is the case, because the deterioration of her game and her sagging mindset have been untimely for a sport that needs the leading players to be in full flight as often as possible.

To put things in perspective, while Henin has moved on, Sharapova has temporarily stepped aside and Ivanovic has tried to reconstruct her game, two established superstars have filled a sizeable void with their exploits at the last two majors. At Wimbledon, Venus Williams secured her third singles crown in the last four years, and her fifth title overall at the sport's shrine. Venus upended her sister Serena in the championship match at the All England Club, taking a seventh major in the process. At the U.S. Open, Serena struck back commandingly, winning her ninth career major with some extraordinary clutch play. In the quarterfinals, Serena eclipsed Venus in a pair of tie-breaks, saving no fewer than ten set points in the two sets combined. In the final, Serena saved four more set points on her way back from 3-5, 0-40 in the second set of a 6-4, 7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic.

In many ways, the sisters Williams have saved the year for the women after so much instability at the top. My hope is that Serena, who reclaimed the No. 1 world ranking she last held in August of 2003 following her Open victory, will finish the season as the preeminent competitor of them all. Serena has worked inordinately hard most of this season. She reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, won three tournaments in March and April, made the final at Wimbledon, and came through at the U.S. Open.

Williams did not perform well on the European clay court circuit, and lost early at Roland Garros. She was injured and inefficient over the summer before her sparkling run in New York. She could have been slightly more consistent overall. But, despite some of these lulls, she has made her deepest commitment to the game in a long while. She has been a revitalized competitor on a mission. She has demanded much more from herself, and has been appropriately rewarded.

Clearly, other women have achieved unprecedented honors this season. Dinara Safina, the most consistent woman player since May, has deservedly moved to a career high at No. 3 in the world. Elena Dementieva captured the gold medal at the Olympics, and is playing the best tennis of her life. There have indeed been some bright performers out on the stage in the women's game this year.

And yet, women's tennis needs a genuine world champion for 2008, a player who can take over convincingly from Henin as the best in the world. The only woman that can fill that bill by finishing this year at the top is Serena Williams. Jankovic and Safina remain in strong contention for year-end supremacy, but neither one has won a Grand Slam event. Ivanovic has good credentials with one Grand Slam tournament title and a major final to her credit. But she would need to dramatically turn her year around now to become world champion for the year. That seems highly improbable to me.

Up to a point, diversity is a good thing in any sport. The women had that this year with four different winners at the Grand Slam events. My wish is that the leading players will stay healthier in 2009, that they develop compelling rivalries stretching from the beginning to the end of the year, that they bring back the stability which was missing in the upper regions over the course of 2008. I am confident the women will give us a spectacular year in 2009.

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