When Kim Clijsters won the 2009 U.S. Open in only her third tournament after a two-year retirement, it simultaneously crafted two strong narratives, ones that have only gotten stronger since 2009:
- Clijsters is a hell of a player, an all-time great.
- Women's tennis is not in great shape.
Clijsters clearly looked strong in dispatching of Serena Williams in the semis and Caroline Wozniacki in the finals that year; but still, a person shouldn't be able to take two years off, then almost immediately resume their place atop the game. One would hope that there is a top tier in place that is hard to penetrate. But in recent years, that has not been the case. Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Venus Williams, all dominant names five or 10 years ago, have struggled with injuries, while a procession of young players have taken turns seizing -- and dropping -- the trident known as the No. 1 ranking.
Yesterday, I did some navel-gazing about men's tennis and how strong it is at the moment. It truly is exciting to see a clearly-defined Top Three of men raising each other's games, while quite a few younger players attempt to displace them. How close are we to something similar in the women's game? Is there any hope that we will see a return to the days of, if not Navratilova-Evert or Graf-Sanchez-Vicario, then at least Davenport-Williams-Williams-Clijsters-Henin?
It seems there are two primary factors behind the current high quality of the men's game: rivalries and transcendent play. To see how soon the women's game could rise again, let's look at how close we are in these two categories and an obvious third.
Slam semifinals on the men's side has become appointment viewing. (Hell, even the quarterfinals of this year's Australian Open were mostly outstanding.) You are virtually guaranteed of at least one Djokovic-Nadal-Federer pairing followed by an incredible final. Rivalries -- Nadal-Federer, Djokovic-Nadal, Djokovic-Federer, Djokovic-Murray -- have formed because of two factors: these pairings happen a lot, and when they do, the even level of competition is obvious.
To say the least, this is an enormous problem on the women's side. Here are the last eight women's slam finals:
- 2012 Australian Open: Victoria Azarenka beats Maria Sharapova in straight sets
- 2011 U.S. Open: Sam Stosur beats Serena Williams in straight sets
- 2011 Wimbledon: Petra Kvitova beats Sharapova in straight sets
- 2011 French Open: Li Na beats Francesca Schiavone in straight sets
- 2011 Australian Open: Kim Clijsters beats Na in three sets
- 2010 U.S. Open: Clijsters beats Vera Zvonareva in straight sets
- 2010 Wimbledon: Serena Williams beats Zvonareva in straight sets
- 2010 French Open: Schiavone beats Stosur in straight sets
That's eight different matchups, one three-set battle and little to no entertainment value.
Even including slam semifinals, since the start of 2008 we have seen only six pairings repeated:
- Kim Clijsters vs. Vera Zvonareva. Clijsters beat Zvonareva in straight sets in the 2010 U.S. Open finals and 2011 Aussie semifinals.
- Elena Dementieva vs. Serena Williams. In the 2009 Wimbledon semis, Williams beat Dementieva, 8-6 in the third set; Williams also won in straight sets in the 2009 Aussie semis.
- Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Dinara Safina. Kuznetsova whipped Safina in straight sets in the 2009 French Open finals a year after Safina whipped her in the 2008 French semis.
- Petra Kvitova vs. Maria Sharapova. Kvitova whipped Sharapova in the 2011 Wimbledon finals, but Sharapova got her revenge with a three-set win in the 2012 Aussie semis.
- Dinara Safina vs. Serena Williams. Serena crushed Safina in both the 2008 U.S. Open semis and 2009 Aussie finals.
- Serena Williams vs. Venus Williams. Serena and Venus split the 2008 and 2009 Wimbledon finals, each in straight sets.
As a point of reference, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have played seven times in slams since the start of 2008, Federer and Rafael Nadal have played five times, and Nadal and Djokovic have played five times. And most of these combined 17 matches have been competitive, exciting ... and long. Of the six women's matchups listed above, two have been one-sided (Clijsters-Zvonareva, Safina-S. Williams), two others have been decided only in straight sets (Kuznetsova-Safina, S. Williams-V. Williams), and one other involved a player who has since retired (Dementieva-S. Williams). That leaves us with nothing but Kvitova-Sharapova.
This has obviously not always been the case. Starting with the 2002 French Open, the Williams sisters have played each other seven times in slam semis or finals, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin played five times, while Henin-S. Williams, Henin-V. Williams and S. Williams-Maria Sharapova each took place three times. These four players, along with Lindsey Davenport and perhaps Elena Dementieva, threw haymakers at each other for years, not only playing each other often, but playing tight, exciting matches. It was always awkward watching Williams face Williams -- you could tell they were not enjoying themselves -- but the contrast in styles and the repeated nature of these rivalries were both very good for the women's game.
It is far from certain, but we are on the ground floor of some interesting rivalries right now. Kvitova and Sharapova did indeed play a dramatic match at the Australian Open, and while Sharapova and Azarenka have not played many close matches, they are certainly playing each other reasonably often in non-slams. (Plus, there is at least a little bit of behind-the-scenes sniping between the two.)
And somehow Sharapova is only 25 years old (it is easy to forget she was just 17 when she won Wimbledon in 2004), so these three could potentially hammer away at each other for a while. All three have looked mostly strong thus far at the French Open -- Sharapova has dropped two games in two matches, Safina has dropped just seven, and Azarenka has won 24 of her last 28 games after struggling to start her first-round match.
Beyond that, lord knows plenty of women have shown potential through the last couple of years. Li Na and Sam Stosur, each a bit older than you would like to see in terms of long-term rivalry potential (Na is 30, Stosur 28), have both played intermittently strong tennis in the past year, 23-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska looked great through much of the spring (and then, naturally, laid an egg in Friday's third round action versus Svetlana Kuznetsova), 24-year old Angelique Kerber is looking strong, and we haven't even mentioned 21-year-old former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
If things come together as they could, we could see the forming of a solid, deep top tier. The problem, of course, is that you could have said exactly the same thing three or four years ago.
It's not just that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have played so many matches against each other; it's that you also feel like you are watching some of the best tennis ever played when they meet. Even if Azarenka, Kvitova, and Sharapova begin to reach regular semifinals, are they capable of playing a certain level of other-worldly tennis? Probably not, no, but there is at least potential here.
Wozniacki held the No. 1 ranking for well over a year simply by playing fantastic defensive tennis, not unlike some of the men (Lleyton Hewitt, et cetera) who won so many matches a decade ago before the rise of Federer. But Azarenka and Kvitova have each blown her out of the water at times because of their offensive upside. When they are on, they can each dictate play and dominate. The question is, simply, can they do it more often? They have time to figure it out. Sharapova, meanwhile, has long had one of the more powerful, sporadic games in the world; over the last year, she has become quite consistent. She is not as powerful as the other two, but she is at least reasonably close.
Are there other players who might have similar upside? I like Angelique Kerber -- she has the ability to create a sudden winner out of a normal baseline rally, and she is playing her best, most consistent tennis at the moment. And while it would not be smart to bet on her at this point, I still like Ana Ivanovic's game when her head doesn't get in the way. It has been four years since she won the French, but she still provides quite a few moments of grace and aggressiveness, a rare combination. But when she enters a slump in a match, it seems to take at least a set for her to snap out of it. That was certainly the case on Friday, when she dominated Sara Errani, 6-1, in the first set, found herself tied, 4-4, in the second, then lost nine of the last 13 games. Still, in terms of pure upside, she belongs in the discussion.
(And of course, Serena Williams still has plenty of upside remaining. At 30, however, we are probably going to see her reach that upside less and less. Case in point: her first-round loss in the 2012 French Open.)
Clearly, however, the hope lies in Azarenka and Kvitova. Neither have reached their respective primes yet, and each have already claimed a slam title. They are not, and almost certainly WILL not, become Federer and Nadal; but if they could at least become Davenport and Clijsters, that's a start.
Within the states, it obviously helps the women's game if actual Americans are involved. And considering how many of the world's truly elite women's players have come from the U.S. in the last 15 -- the Williams sisters, Davenport and Jennifer Capriati dominated much of the early post-Steffi Graf era -- it would probably help the game as a whole, too, if the U.S. got its act together.
There may be hope, but don't expect much just yet. Serena and Venus each probably have a few interesting slams left in them, and that could buy time for a few interesting Americans. Christina McHale just turned 20 and faces Na Li in the third round of the French on Saturday. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Sloane Stephens looked fantastic in dispatching of Mathilde Johansson, 6-3 6-2, to reach the fourth round on Friday. There is little margin for error with these two -- if they don't work out, there aren't exactly many others to step up -- but they are each exciting, and they each play different styles.
Stephens will certainly have a chance to prove her upside at the beginning of the tournament's second week, when she faces the winner of No. 6 Sam Stosur and No. 27 Nadia Petrova.
Beyond these two, perhaps the most intriguing American is Varvara Lepchenko; she is already 26, but she is enjoying her best year on tour, and she dispatched of No. 19 Jelena Jankovic (one of many former No. 1s) in the second round. She faces seasoned clay-court specialist Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open champ and 2011 runner-up, in the third round. Her reward if she manages to pull that upset? A likely fourth-round battle with Kvitova.
The draw has quickly gotten more difficult for each of the remaining three Americans, but we'll be optimistic and call it a great opportunity.
If men's tennis is as good as I say it is, and I still consider it at its all-time peak, then it would be unfair to expect the same thing of the women's game at the exact same time. But we can certainly demand more than we have seen in recent years. If Azarenka and Kvitova can do what so many others (Ivanovic, especially) couldn't -- both reach and maintain a high ceiling -- then that alone would be a start. There have been no rivalries, no consistencies, and no slam-to-slam storylines (other than "the curse of No. 1," of course) since the Williams sisters and the two Belgians (Clijsters, Henin) passed their respective primes.