Is Women's Tennis Worth the Watch?
September 1, 2009 -- Dinara Safina narrowly escaped what would have been a devastating loss today on Arthur Ashe Stadium court. If she had not turned the third set around she would have become the first top-seeded women in U. S. Open history to lose in the first round - an asterisk she would not have wanted etched on her career record.
With the air thick with controversy about Safina's worthiness as the number one player in the world, her win today barely keeps the barrage of criticism at bay. The match was a horror, unless you like to witness a workaholic athlete implode in her last chance to win a Grand Slam title this year.
The mistakes during the match were not all Safina's, either. Her opponent Olivia Rogowska, a wildcard entry, was a co-conspirator in the mess. Both women committed a total of 113 unforced errors, 24 double faults (11 for Safina), and 15 service breaks, in little over two and a half hours. You have to wonder what went through fans' minds as they watched.
But these types of matches are not that uncommon in the women's game. At the Rogers Cup three of the four semifinalists faced a total of 80 breaks of serve... an astronomical amount! Tournaments at every level of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour turn up matches chuck full of abysmal serves, double faults galore, and breaks on top of breaks. Infuse this mix with shrill screams each time a ball is struck and you have what many might say is an unpleasant sport-watching experience.
Comeback kid Kim Clijsters said women players these days don't seem to have an alternate plan when they come on court. If these girls have a bad day, face a variety of strokes, or just have their rhythm broken then they are susceptible to defeat. Are the big training academies turning out clones that only know baseline bashing?
Martina Navratilova said that players these days don't know how to slice a tennis ball, this morning on ESPN2's Mike and Mike show, not singling out women. The grande dame of Grand Slams pointed at both men and women tour players. Again... do coaches commiserate with players in order to keep the peace and their salaries? Or, do they need to push a bit more and encourage players to vary their strategies, prepare for downturns in matches, and know themselves well enough to so dig deep that they scrape the bottoms of their souls?
Stacey Allaster, the new Chairman and CEO of the WTA, believes that the empty seats behind players in the semifinal and final rounds of a women's WTA tournament, for example in Cincinnati a few weeks back, could be attributed somewhat to corporations that buy chunks of front row seats and then don't use them, or give them away. On the other hand, empty seats could mean people don't want to watch a women's match. There weren't any empty seats in Montreal this summer at the Rogers Cup, during semifinals and finals.
It's not that women's tennis doesn't have stars. Up-and-comers fight hard, divide their time between fitness and on-court training the best way possible. They want to win and be number one in the world. At moments they embody confidence and surge, minimizing errors and pathetic serving. At other times, they enter the zone -- that elusive heaven where each point is distinctive and solitary, and games pile up without effort.
Watch Maria Sharapova over the next two weeks, if she advances. Sabine Lisicki, Jie Zheng, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Sorana Cirstea, the Williams sisters, Elena Dementieva... these stand out and the list is incomplete.
One very important thing to remember about today's center court mishap match, Dinara Safina won it. Champions win in all circumstances. She has proven herself many times this year and last. One of the best matches of the year came in Rome against Venus Williams. Safina had never won a set off Venus, let alone a match. But the Russian broke through there. Both players went for broke. It was fabulous to witness. But why doesn't this happen with more consistency?
The last time a women's singles final at the U. S. Open went three sets was in 1995. Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles. In fairness, the last time a men's singles final went five was in 1999. The length of a final doesn't make the match better automatically. However, it does signal a contest of skill and will that neither player can close convincingly or lose outright.
Maybe women are distracted with outside interests: lucrative endorsement deals or part-time careers. Deep down they might not have the conviction to endure spirited matches or correct glaring technique problems because they know they could blast out of tennis into the stratosphere of modeling, or whatever.
Justine Henin, though, was one tennis champion who played only to win. She had no other agenda. Call her out on poor sportsmanship, during the Australian Open when she retired midway through the second set because of a tummy ache or at the French Open when she denied raising her hand as Serena Williams served. But you cannot deny that Henin embodied a singleness of purpose that served her well and served the game well. People wanted to watch her play.
It has been since her departure that women's tennis has entered into a rough span of time. No one wants the reigns. And the one who has them isn't considered the best. Does the banter and negative talk influence performance? Is the opportunity to grab top-ten ranking spots so great that nerves and impossible plans leave a pros with nothing to fall back on except hope?
Alisa Kleybanova, the #27 seed, lost her first round match this afternoon. She was expected to penetrate the draw and meet Safina in the third round. Shahar Peer upset Agnes Szavay, the #32 seed. And, little known Yanina Wickmayer took out the 16th seed Virginie Razzano. On the other side of the coin, though, Melanie Oudin and Christine McHale advanced. These are two teenagers fighting their way on tour.
Bad days come and go. The tour is an up-and-down affair. But at a Grand Slam the mental fortitude better be intact or the curtain comes down with a thud.
Serving 11 double faults and committing a share of 113 unforced errors isn't great to report. To watch a match like this unfold on the biggest stage of American tennis is distressing. However it is not the end of the story.
The WTA has worked hard on its Roadmap to success. By all its measures women's tennis is better. According to its data, prize money has increased, players deliver on their commitments to play tournaments, withdrawals are down, and medical timeouts have decreased. These are the positive signs that loom in the background and could spell future improvement. Fewer tournaments with better draws and prize money could begin to stabilize poor performances. Fans can only hope and wait.