Four years ago, after the Australian Open, here was the WTA top 20:
1. Serena Williams
2. Dinara Safina
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova
4. Caroline Wozniacki
5. Elena Dementieva
6. Venus Williams
7. Victoria Azarenka
8. Jelena Jankovic
9. Vera Zvonareva
10. Agnieszka Radwanska
11. Marion Bartoli
12. Flavia Pennetta
13. Sam Stosur
14. Maria Sharapova
15. Kim Clijsters
16. Yanina Wickmayer
17. Na Li
18. Francesca Schiavone
19. Nadia Petrova
20. Virginie Razzano
Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and one-time World No. 1, had already faltered and dropped out of the top 20. Maria Sharapova, still recovering from injuries in 2008 and 2009, was playing terribly inconsistent tennis. Kim Clijsters was still early in her comeback and playing inconsistently as well; fellow Belgian Justin Henin was about done with her own comeback. Late-bloomer Li Na was not quite ready to peak. Venus Williams, almost 30, was coming off of a faulty season.
Jelena Jankovic, another former No. 1, had peaked a year or two earlier. Caroline Wozniacki, though only 19, was about to. Vika Azarenka and Aga Radwanska weren't ready.
After a faltering late in slams in 2009, Dinara Safina was about to get wrecked by back issues and retire. Svetlana Kuznetsova was about to fall into a four-year black hole. At 28, Elena Dementieva was just about done.
The women's game was in serious flux, in other words.
There is good parity, and there is bad parity. Both result in competitive tennis, but only one results in particularly appealing play. From 2008-12, really, with the Williams sisters playing sporadically and going through random injury issues, we saw the bad side of competitive balance.
In 2014, however, we might be seeing some rather positive developments. That, or you're about to read some optimistic, desperately hopeful spin.
- Serena Williams is coming off perhaps her most dominant season ever. Despite suffering a bit of a back injury at the Australian Open, there's reason to believe she is going to continue playing some of her best tennis.
- Despite losing at the Aussie Open for the first time in three years, Azarenka is still a dominant force on hard courts.
- Li Na, who considered retirement in 2013, is also back to playing dominant tennis and is in the Aussie Open finals for the third time in four years.
- Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, darlings of the tour in 2008, are playing their best tennis in years. Ivanovic took down Williams in three sets before fading against Eugenie Bouchard in the quarterfinals, and Jankovic is back into the top 8 after establishing a high level over the last half of 2013.
- Simona Halep, a 22-year-old from Romania, won the WTA's Most Improved Player award in 2013 with aggressive, aesthetically pleasing tennis and romped to her first slam quarterfinal in Melbourne this week. (She also has a delightful interpretation of the English language.)
- Dominika Cibulkova, a 24-year-old, 5'3 lightning bolt from Slovakia, is on the upswing. After a loss to Serena Williams in a Brisbane tune-up, she has put together a series of stunning, dominant results at the Australian Open: 6-1, 6-0 over No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro; 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 over Maria Sharapova; 6-3, 6-0 over Halep; 6-1, 6-2 over Radwanska. She has battled inconsistency throughout her career — she has now reached at least the quarterfinals at five slams and has lost in the third round or earlier 14 times in between — but this is a new level.
- Aga Radwanska is both a throwback player and a land mine. She has blown opportunities in two of three slams — she became the Wimbledon favorite after Serena Williams' upset loss to Sabine Lisicki, but lost to Lisicki after holding a third-set lead; and after ending Azarenka's long Aussie win streak in the quarterfinals this year, she got absolutely trounced by Dominika Cibulkova — but has proven capable of beating anybody at anytime. She dictates the terms of the match, gets into your head, and sucks your power away. Even if she's more at a Jana Novotna level than Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (1990s reference!), she's a provider of quality depth.
- The youngsters are rising quickly. Sloane Stephens (20 years old) has reached at least the final 16 in five straight slams, even if she struggles to do much damage against elite players. Eugenie Bouchard (19) blew Ivanovic off of the court late in their quarterfinal match. Laura Robson (20) has reached a slam fourth round twice (though she is now dealing with a wrist injury). Elina Svitolina (19) is into the top 50, American Madison Keys (18) is into the top 40, and Donna Vekic (17) is into the top 100. And other 20-or-youngers like Caroline Garcia, Ajla Tomljanovic, Monica Puig, Garbine Muguruza, Annika Beck, and American Lauren Davis have all shown high-ceiling potential.
On Saturday, we will be getting an unexpected final pairing in the women's Australian Open: Na vs. Cibulkova, the No. 4 seed vs. the No. 20. Whether that is a sign of good parity or bad is up to the beholder. You could spin that as "the top players aren't very good" if you want, but the eyes would disagree with that. There was a lot of high-level tennis on display in Melbourne. Injuries to Williams (back) and Sharapova (hip) didn't help, but Ivanovic was still confident and error-free in taking down Williams. Cibulkova was still powerful and fast in beating Sharapova. Bouchard still hit heavy, accurate balls in reaching the semifinals. Azarenka played high-caliber tennis until the third set against Radwanska.
There is a chance that what we've seen in Melbourne is a convergence of sorts.
The older class of players — Serena Williams, Li, Sam Stosur, maybe even Venus Williams in spurts — is still capable of dominance (especially Serena, obviously). Mid-20s players like Sharapova, Jankovic, Cibulkova and Ivanovic are either experiencing a second surge or, in Sharapova's case, aren't far removed from one. And a new class of youngsters, from Halep to Bouchard to Stephens to Keys, is improving rapidly. This is a positive sign. That a defense-heavy, lower-upside clay-courter like Sara Errani (Francesca Schiavone Jr., basically) can still reach the semis or finals at Roland Garros is a sign that there is still work to be done, but there is more reason for optimism in the women's game than there has been for a while.
As for the finals matchup itself, one has to figure that the burden of proof is on Cibulkova, just as it has been for the entire tournament. Na has taken eight of nine lifetime sets (and four of four matches) from Cibulkova; the two met on a hard court for the first time in Toronto last year, and Na took a rather easy 7-6 (7-1), 6-2 decision in just over 90 minutes. Cibulkova struggled to mount a challenge with her second serve, and as is usually the case, Na, the more experienced of the two, dominated break points — she won five of eight break points on her serve and five of six on Cibulkova's. (Watch the entire match here.) They have both dominated the latter rounds of this tournament, but assume the more well-seasoned Na, such an entertaining fan favorite in Melbourne, lifts the trophy.