January 12, 2013
Forecasting how a women’s Grand Slam draw will unfold over the course of a fortnight has become a tedious act of analytical folly.
Finding the form of the women’s field is so difficult because its makeup is so elusive - is it solid, liquid or gas? Is Serena merely physically present in Melbourne or will her imposing presence be the only thing that matters? Is there any such entity as a favorite among the women if Serena isn’t at her best? Are the rankings completely meaningless if Caroline Wozniacki is seeded first even though she hasn’t reached a Slam final in nearly a year and a half? Is Petra Kvitova, the southpaw who won Wimbledon on the strength of her powerful serve and the current darling of the tennis commentating establishment, the real deal?
Some may think the unpredictability in women’s tennis is exciting, and keeps it all interesting. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.
For starters, there is no such thing as an upset in women’s tennis anymore. By its very definition, an upset has to be an unusual event, a circumstance in which a clearly superior player is defeated by an upstart (i.e. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic losing before the quarterfinals). Yet how can there be upsets when there is no consistency? If any of the top 10 women lost in the first round it would be surprising to a degree but not at all shocking. That cannot be said for the men.
The last seven Slam championships for the women have produced six different winners: Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Kvitova and Australia’s Sam Stosur. Obviously Serena’s and Clijsters’ triumphs were expected. But not the others.
There was potential for some great stories here. Na and Stosur are talented veterans who were rarely factors in Slams until last year. But if they don’t follow up their stirring victories, their inspiring play recedes quickly from consciousness. It was the same with Schiavone’s shocking victory at the French Open in 2010. It was great to see a tennis elder win and her abundant joy afterwards was refreshing and one of the best stories of 2010. But is she likely to even threaten for a Slam title again? No.
What one hopes is that 2012 produces a truly stellar, important, year for the sport. One in which the sport solidifies its liquid state and forms a cohesive and compelling whole. And this chiefly hinges on two things: Serena putting together one final stretch to top off her incredibly prolific career; and a young player, like Kvitova or Wozniacki, finally displaying a powerful consistency.
So can the 2012 Australian Open begin this process, of adding weight to the women’s game and again making it at least half as interesting as the men?
Serena will be 31 this year and is undoubtedly well into the second half of her championship-winning capability. She’s battled injuries of late and likely feels a sense of urgency to do well in Australia. Love her or not, she is far and away the best player of her generation and, if she can put together a couple of more multi-Slam victory years, she will be mentioned in the top 10 women of all time.
Though seeded only 12th, her path to victory in Australia appears as favorable as she could have hoped for. There’s nary a threat in her first few matches and she’s slated to meet Vera Zvonerva in the quarterfinals, against whom she is 6-2 (including 3-0 in Slam encounters). And if Serena manages this as easily as she is capable, awaiting her in the semis is likely Kvitova - though Kvitova may have a few roadblocks, most notably if she plays Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round.
The 24 year-old Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion, has been a non-factor of late in the Slams and injuries and mental fragility kept her off course. But she’s shown some promise of late and she is well positioned for an upset or two.
Serena and Kvitova have played each other only twice, with Serena winning all four sets contested. But they haven’t met in two years and Kvitova is a much stronger player now. It could turn out to be a thrilling contest, with Serena’s mental and physical dominance competing against the best young women’s player who possesses a brutally difficult lefty serve. It’s unfortunate that these two are in the same half of the draw as they’re the two favorites to win the event.
The top half of the draw is far trickier to conjure up likely scenarios. Wozniacki, the No. 1 seed, isn’t really considered a favorite to win the tournament. Though a model of consistency and an emotionally and mentally focused competitor, Wozniacki hasn’t figured out a way to selectively add a power aspect to her baseline game. Until she does, she’ll likely maintain her current habit of rarely losing early in the big events but never coming out on top.
But with the unknown quality in the field, there’s not a better time for Wozniacki to prove her critics wrong. She’ll have her hands full in the quarterfinals where an appointment with four-time Slam champion Clijsters is likely. It appears that the winner of this contest will be one of the finalists.
Whatever eventually happens with the women Down Under, of this there is little doubt: the women have to start putting together watchable Slams, for their sport is becoming alarmingly irrelevant. The good news is that with Serena, Kvitova, Wozniacki and a couple of others, the ingredients are there for the women to stage an exciting tournament, worthy of the athleticism and hard work put into their efforts.