A truly competitive age?

It was a glorious May afternoon on the 28th and I was of course inside for a large portion watching the early rounds of the French Open on ITV4. It was an obvious choice. After watching the conclusion of Laura Robson’s defeat on her debut at Roland Garros, the coverage turned to the Women’s Number 1 and winner of the last grand slam at the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka was playing the World number 105 Alberta Brianti of Italy. At the time of the switch over, Azarenka was already a set and a break down to a player who has only been passed the first round of a ‘slam’ at 2 venues in her 13 year professional career, with neither being at this particular scene. In fairness, she reached her career high ranking of 55 last year prior toWimbledon so let’s not disapprove of her straight away. Brianti continued to maintain her dominance through the middle of the second set as she took a 4-0 lead after consolidating another break of serve.

Victoria Azarenka struggling in her three set victory over World No. 105 Alberta Brianti

To get to this stage of the match was alarming for Azarenka, especially as her Italian opponent herself wasn’t exactly setting the Parisians alight in the crowd. The amount of unforced errors was unbelievable for a player of her rankings and calibre. Despite the fact that the Belarusian was able to somehow overturn the deficit she had herself created, the statistics were rather grim reading. 60 unforced errors and a first serve win percentage of 56 is not what you would expect of the best player in women’s tennis.

After watching the lacklustre display in front of me I began to ask myself whether the potential of a player ranked 104 places below Azarenka in the world rankings was down to the great depth within the field or progress in the opposite direction.

Since Francesca Schiavone lifted the French Open two years ago there have been 7 more grand slams and of which there have been 6 different winners. If you compare this across the genders, only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have succeeded in defeating their peers over a grand slam fortnight. The difference in predictability will be of great interest to bookmakers but it is evidence of a lack of world-class players dominating the female game in the present era.

The last great stalwarts of the game have either retired for varying reasons or kid themselves that they still maintain a great hunger for the game. The latter point is clearly a nod towards the Williams sisters. Their insistence in continuing to play and their ‘love’ for tennis is something that the majority cannot get their head around. They are world-class players who have a great history in the sport. Serena Williams has 13 grand slam titles to her sisters 7, but witnessing the fall from grace of the pair isn’t exactly refined. The sisters that revolutionised modern women’s tennis from the 90’s into the new millennium only play a handful of events outside of the major competitions each year. What is alarming is the ability they have to turn up at events, without playing competitively in months, and walk home with the trophy. It does not create a beneficial aura around the tour if they can achieve what would be considered a ‘Hollywood’ script in any other sporting profession. For every tennis fan, retirement would not be their preference but more respect towards them and the other players should be granted. The sisters talk about their love for fashion and design, discussing their futures as being full-time in this profession when age and the globetrotting take its toll. Kim Clijsters has announced her second retirement from the sport following the US Open later this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the sisters would follow suit, especially as Venus Williams has been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.

The Williams dominant period in the game didn’t just contain the rivalry between the sisters. At the beginning of that era there was Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo and the aforementioned Clijsters. Then there was a wealth of talent within the women’s game. These players were certainly of a finer pedigree than the Azarenka’s and Jelena Jankovic’s of todays field. One key attribute that they all shared was fantastic movement around the court and a shot variation only truly seen in the men’s draw. Amelie Mauresmo, in particular, was the one that really bucked the trend when the female game became solely concentrated on baseline borefests. Her game was perfectly tuned towards the grass courts of Wimbledon rather than the terracotta of Roland Garros.

In an opposite mould Justine Henin was perfect for the clay. Happy to slog it out 5 metres behind the baseline to deprive the big hitters of their dominance on court before hitting a perfectly orchestrated single hand backhand winner. John McEnroe described this as the best backhand he had seen in tennis, even above Roger Federer. Such an accolade from a man who still believes no professional female tennis player could beat him at a singles match is a quite a surprise. Henin won 7 grand slams and was especially dominant at Paris before retiring at only 25.She made a less than spectacular comeback in 2010, unlike her compatriot Clijsters who won the US Open in 2009 after only a few WTA tour events back (sound familiar).

The problem with present day players is exactly what was great about those that reigned before them. They seem somewhat nervous to get out of baseline rallies and attack from the net. Shot variation is minimal at best and doesn’t provide a great spectacle to advertise the female game. Maria Sharapova is the only player of recent memory actively pursuing the ‘dambuster’ approach. It has proved reasonably successful over the last couple of years since adopting said tactic. Two grand slam final defeats at Wimbledon and the Australian Open whilst ascending to number 2 in the World. The crucial problem with Sharapova is her mobility on court and stamina. She would be utterly dominant otherwise. Some players have found it increasingly easy to push and pull her around court, dispatching winners into the canyon of space vacated by her gangly frame.

Injuries have blighted Maria Sharapova’s career

The ‘Williams effect’ is shared by many modern players who clearly have placed all emphasis on bruising rallies that will hopefully have a detrimental effect on the opposing player both mentally and physically. It was the case for Azarenka in her first round match as she was able to roll over Brianti in the end as the belief of being a set and two breaks up on the World Number 1, drained out of every pore in her body.

However, It is the make up of the top 10 which poses a number of questions. The sixth best in the World is Sam Stosur of Australia. Predominantly known for being a doubles specialist, over the last couple of years she has announced herself on the solo stage. A finalist at the French 2 years ago and now the reigning US Open champion, her place amongst the top players of the women’s game is set in stone. She has the arsenal to hinder those at the very top. Crashing forehands and a service renowned for its heavy spin, Stosur is causing problems for many on the WTA tour.

The real bright spark, however, is World Number 4 Petra Kvitova. The 22-year-old won Wimbledon last year, destroying Sharapova on straight sets, before heading to Istanbul for the year-end championships where she defeated Azarenka in the final. 2011 was the rise to power of the Czech starlet and it indicated the potential for greatness within her. A power player, she is known for her aggressive serves and forehand, sitting directly upon the baseline to assert her dominating play and to cover for her lack of speed. What is obvious about Kvitova is that she clearly has the mental strength to advance to the next level and is without doubt going to be the top ranked player within the next year or so.

It is obvious that Women’s tennis is at a competitive segment in it’s life cycle as the statistics cannot be argued against. Seven different winners in the last eight grand slams is a remarkable fact. The problem with this assertion is that it can be largely considered a falsity. Just because there are several potential winners of each tournament it doesn’t mean that the game is in its peak physical condition. A period of domination by one player brings out the best in others as they compete to slay Goliath. Kvitova could be this giant, as could Azarenka, Sharapova (fitness permitting) or even Wozniacki, if she begins to contain the ‘yips’ she has contracted off Rory McIlroy. Within the next couple of years, someone truly remarkable will come along and perform this valiant act. One question is in the mind of every British tennis fan. Could it be Heather Watson?

Heather Watson: A bright future