During last year’s US Open, we had written about how, unlike the more predictable men’s tour, the women’s draw was wide open, with multiple challengers posing a genuine threat to Serena Williams’ dominance. We talked about how the uncertainty regarding who would win was a good thing and made women’s tennis exciting and dramatic. This is still true.
However, it’s only fair to look at the flip side of the unpredictability on the women’s tour. This year’s Wimbledon is a great example because it is hard to point to any clear favorite. Is this a blessing or a curse?
Women’s tennis has lacked a consistent narrative – apart from that of Serena Williams – in the current decade. Since 2010, fourteen different women have won a Grand Slam singles title. Compare that with the men’s game where there have been half that number of champions. A look at the list of runners up is even more revealing. Twenty-eight different women have reached a Grand Slam final since January 2010, compared with just ten men. Of those players, thirteen have not won a Grand Slam.
Of course, this reflects the increased depth in women’s tennis since the era of, say Steffi Graf. More and more unfamiliar names and young players are capable of winning any particular event as they have proved over the last decade. Even Serena Williams, arguably the most dominant player in the history of women’s tennis, has suffered shock defeats at the hands of massive underdogs.
For instance, in three successive majors – US Open 2015, Australian Open 2016, and French Open 2016 – she was thwarted in her quest to equal Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles by players who were not supposed to beat her. This has made for some astonishing and entertaining upsets in recent times.
However, this belies a less pleasant truth. That no one is able to hold on to the top ranking or accumulate a series of wins makes it hard for many tennis fans – except the most diehard ones – to even keep track of the list of champions, leave along have a firm favorite to follow throughout her career and root passionately for. So what exactly is the matter?
One Slam wonders
Of the fourteen female Grand Slam winners in this decade, six have only won a single one. Two of them – Flavia Pennetta and Marion Bartoli – announced their retirement soon after winning their maiden slam. The most recent Grand Slam champion, Jelena Ostapenko, who won her first major just two days after turning twenty, is a shining example of a player with a lot of potential and talent who has suddenly broken through. But she is not favored on the grass courts and few people will be surprised if she loses early. This is not so much a commentary on her skills but rather a relfection of how jaded we have become about the one slam wonders we have seen of late.
There seems to be either an inability or an unwillingness to build on Grand Slam success.
Two top players who embody this best are Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza. Last year belonged to them.Their respective victories (the Australian and US Open for Kerber and the French for Muguruza) appeared to herald a new era, and hopefully a new rivalry at the top. But both have since gloriously failed to live up to expectations.
After winning the French Open in 2016 by beating Serena, Muguruza looked set to win multiple slams and contend for the number one ranking. In fact, a year ago we at Scroll had predicted that she would be the next great champion in women’s tennis. Then, in September, we took that back.
But she followed up her victory at Roland Garros with a first round exit at a grass court event, a second round loss at Wimbledon, and a second round loss at the US Open. Not only did she lose, she she did so to much lower-ranked opponents in straight sets, after committing numerous unforced errors. There was no doubt about it. Instead of playing better as a Grand Slam champion, Muguruza played much worse.
As for Kerber, who so charmed the tennis world last fall after winning two majors, reaching the final of a third, and taking over the number one ranking, she has had a dismal 2017 so far. At Wimbledon, tennis analyst and former player Brad Gilbert said he doesn’t consider her to be amongst even the top 30 contenders for this year’s title. How is this possible when she is ranked number one in the world?
After winning the Australian Open last year, Kerber lost in the first round of Rome, Madrid, and the French Open. Then, she appeared to regroup later in the year and looked like she had finally learned to deal with the pressure. Then again, maybe not. This year Kerber suffered the dubious distinction of becoming only the first top-seeded female player to lose in the first round of the French Open. She has failed to win a single WTA tour title in 2017 and reached just one final.
In the past both Muguruza and Kerber have admitted to feeling the weight of all the expectations that come with a Grand Slam victory. After winning her first round match at Wimbledon on Tuesday – albeit with a mediocre performance – Kerber said, “There is much more expectation, much more pressure, from me, from outside, from everything… it’s easier to go there than to stay there.”
Pressure is a privilege
Former American tennis icon Billie Jean King once famously said “Pressure is a privilege.” People like Kerber and Muguruza would do well to think about that and be inspired by their success rather than cower before it.
But all the responsibility cannot belong to these two relatively new champions. Other top players have been plagued with challenges and impacted by circumstances that have collectively made the women’s tour so inconsistent.
Last year, former world number one and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka came back from a foot injury to win the Indian Wells-Miami double, but then missed the latter half of 2016 due to pregnancy. This is of course the same reason that Serena Williams is now away. Azarenka is now back – with her son Leo – to try and regain some of her trademark on-court passion.
While several male players in recent years have continued to win titles after becoming fathers – including three of the Big Four – it is, for obvious reasons, harder for women to return from pregnancy and childbirth, and then to juggle the duties of motherhood with the rigors of the tour.
Let’s not underestimate what a remarkable achievement fit is for a female player to win a major after having a baby – as Kim Clijsters did twice, or indeed while pregnant, as Serena did in Melbourne this year. No doubt motherhood and the desire for it does cause some interruptions and early retirements on the women’s tour, a challenge the men do not have to contend with.
Sharapova was the competition
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the past couple of years has been the drug scandal involving Maria Sharapova. The Russian was never just a pretty face. More than any other player still active, Sharapova is the one to give Serena a run for her money in terms of consistent superstardom. The five-time major champion has achieved the elusive career slam and is only the fourth woman in history to havewon at least one singles title a year from 2003 until 2015.
Her absence and fall from grace have cast a shadow on women’s tennis this past year, both in terms of the competitive spirit and the glamor she brings to the sport. After failing a drug test at the Australian Open in 2016, Sharapova confessed to having taken banned substance meldonium, for which she was suspended for two years by the International Tennis Federation. After her suspension was reduced, she returned to tennis in April this year to play a few tournaments where she received wildcards, but has been unable to accomplish much since. The French Open organizers refused to grant her a wildcard and she was forced to withdraw from the Wimbledon qualifying event due to a thigh injury.
While women’s tennis has in the past decade enjoyed new names and wide open fields, what it has lacked is a real rivalry at the top. There’s no sense of anticipation about a possible matchup on the women’s side to compete with a Nadal-Federer final. There’s no clear favorite at any event, which means we cannot root for someone to reach a new milestone.
There is no dominant player who is likely to play for the next several years and amass titles and records, thereby providing inspiration to future generations like a Martina Navratilova or a Chris Evert once did, or a Monica Seles or a Graf or even a Justine Henin. Once the Williams sisters retire, who will be the next icon? Whom can we depend on to win and then to win again and again? At present, no one seems poised to accept that responsibility. Hopefully, someone will soon prove me wrong. In the meantime, it’s anybody’s Wimbledon.
Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.
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