You do not have to search for very long to come across articles bemoaning the state of women’s tennis. “Wacky”, “crazy”, “unpredictable” – all of these words have been brandished in an attempt to describe how the WTA tour has played out recently. Fingers are pointed at the recent flux of world number ones, such as Jankovic, Safina, Ivanovic and Wozniacki, who have reached the top of the rankings without winning a grand slam. Many onlookers lament an apparent lack of mental fortitude, accusing players of capitulating in grand slam finals and thereby providing a poor spectacle for fans.
For several years now, the WTA tour has been maligned with unfavourable comparisons to its ATP counterpart. To see how this is both unhelpful and misleading, we need to take a brief look at the ATP Tour, namely the facts and stats surrounding the dominance of the top male players.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are three of the game’s all-time greats. That they are playing in the same era is remarkable, and a rare occurrence. The career of Bjorn Borg, for example, did not coincide with Ivan Lendl at his peak, or Boris Becker or Stefan Edberg. Pete Sampras had a major rival in Andre Agassi, but, with all due respect to players from the mid- to late-nineties, he had few other serious, consistent competitors.
The trio of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic has won 28 of the last 29 grands slams, a period of dominance unparalleled in the Open era. Their matches against each other are almost always of high quality and full of drama, momentum shifts and incredible shotmaking. In short, contests between the Big Three are generally among the greatest matches ever played in men’s tennis. Players outside this elite group are merely forming a queue for a spot in the semi-finals of a given tournament.
And herein lies the main problem for those aiming to promote and defend women’s tennis. Compared to the iron consistency, if not rigidity, of the men’s tour, the fluctuating results of the best female players are always going to be considered wild. Because there is a greater variety of tournament champions, and because the WTA rankings have been more fluid during the past few seasons, the women’s tour has been seen by some as a second-rate product.
On closer scrutiny, there is a lot less upheaval than casual fans are led to believe. If we look at the women’s tour as it currently stands, there is real stability at the game’s pinnacle. A lot of this has to do with the return to dominance of Serena Williams who, at her best, can beat anyone on a given day. But Victoria Azarenka, the current world number one, along with Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova make up a fine top 5. Sharapova is a stalwart of the game, and reaffirmed her status as a great player by winning the French Open. The other three mentioned are younger and have less illustrious histories, but they are nevertheless extremely good players. Many believe Petra Kvitova, Wimbledon champion last year, has what it takes to become an all-time great, and Azarenka dominated at the start of the year by winning her first four tournaments. Radwanska reached the Wimbledon final and won several other events. All of these players have performed consistently well throughout the year, and they have had to prove their mettle in many tough matches. The notion of the women’s tour as a game of musical chairs – with the last woman standing awarded the trophy or anointed with the number one ranking – is simply false.
It may well be the case that the ATP Tour is, at present, more compelling than the WTA. Every grand slam event is almost guaranteed a blockbuster bout between the game’s top male players, each of whom has broken countless records with their achievements. While the women’s tour has not seen as many classic high-profile matches of late, we should not ignore the fact that the Australian Open semi-finals featured two fantastic three-set battles, and that the Wimbledon quarter-finals in particular were a superb exhibition of competitiveness, athleticism and gripping momentum shifts.
Moreover, the US Open 2012 has been a banner event for women’s tennis, and done a lot to dismiss the impression of the WTA as a roller-coaster sideshow to the men’s tour. The title match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka was one of the most compelling finals of recent times, pulsating with drama, intrigue and daredevil tennis. It was exactly the kind of match that fans have longed to see in the last few years: the very best players producing their best tennis on the biggest stage.
At last, we are beginning to see high-profile match-ups with greater regularity on the women’s tour. Three of the top four seeds reached the US Open semi-finals, and battles between the game’s elite players are starting to live up to their billing. As the generation of Azarenka, Kvitova and Radwanska finds the consistency to match their formidable talents, they are going to meet even more regularly in the latter rounds of grand slams and other major tournaments, challenging the veterans Sharapova and Williams. As the 2012 season enters its final phase, the top women players are definitely putting some distance between themselves and the chasing pack, much like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done on the men’s tour (although, in their case, the gap is more of a chasm). 2013 could indeed herald a new golden era for the WTA tour.
Finally, lest we think that women’s tennis has always been the less interesting counterpart to the mens tour, we should bear in mind that these gilded periods are cyclical. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Williams sisters were emerging as tenacious talents. Lindsay Davenport scooped major prizes with her powerful game, and Martina Hingis delighted fans with her enchanting brand of sudoku tennis. Also, veterans Monica Seles and Steffi Graf were still in the mix, while Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were starting to make significant waves. Meanwhile, on the men’s tour, we saw one-slam wonders such as Albert Costa and Thomas Johansson hoisting major trophies, while contests between big servers such as Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis primarily offered an endless stream of aces and unreturnable serves, not exactly a treat for fans of nuance, tactics and flair.
Of course, one can cherry-pick and choose examples from any era, but there can be no denying the strength of women’s tennis back then. A decade ago, it was the WTA tour that offered the best entertainment and provided the most compelling storylines in the sport, while the men’s game arguably lacked variety and consistent rivalries. The point is that each tour ebbs and flows, and while many may choose to watch Federer go toe-to-toe with Djokovic at the US Open rather than see Sharapova duel Azarenka, there will again come a time when the WTA tour is the richer source of drama. For now, we should celebrate women’s tennis in its current “silver age”, and stop comparing it unfavourably.