For What It's Worth
October 27, 2010 -- Disparaging remarks about women's tennis isn't new. But there's something off this week. Maybe it's because the WTA Championships in Doha signal the end of the season, and pundits might as well get their licks in now.
Granted the big hitters are out of this competition, that's been well established. No Venus or Serena Williams. No Justine Henin. Between them they have won 27 major titles in singles. Pretty impressive stuff. So when they aren't at the WTA's year-ending gig, buzzers go off as well as the keyboards of columnists.
Liz Clarke of The Washington Post on Tuesday wrote that this year's championships "will mark an anti-climatic finish to what has been a sub-par year for the women's game."
She continues, repeating what many before her have said -- Caroline Wozniacki set atop the WTA Rankings due to hard work, meaning she played tons of matches and, furthermore, Serena Williams was absent in a load of tournament draws.
The message is clear. Work hard, stay healthy, surpass the heavyweights, and you either have a lot of explaining to the press, which would be totally impossible because you'd look like a moron trying to defend yourself knowing that it was poised to counter comments, or you are being discounted because expectations have been blown clean off court.
Steve Tignor writing his blog "Concrete Elbow" on tennis.com came right out and said it clear as day, "This isn't the WTA season-ender we wanted."
Bravo for Steve. He's right. It isn't what we wanted. We wanted a clash-of-the-titans draw. Can you imagine? Then we wouldn't drag Caroline Wozniacki through the mud because, for sure, she isn't the real deal, so it goes. And, neither is Vera Zvonareva by the way. She's a head case. A powder keg awaiting a flame.
"It'll be a surprise to me is she goes all the way," Lindsay Davenport commented Tuesday on Tennis Channel about Zvonareva, the currently ranked #2 player in the world.
Does Davenport have evidence? You bet. This year Vera found herself one match away from two major titles -- Wimbledon and the U. S. Open. Serena took Wimbledon and Clijsters won the U. S. Open. Zvonareva lost in the finals of Rogers Cup, Family Circle Cup, and in Beijing, too. Wozniacki had her number in Montreal at Rogers Cup and in Beijing. Samantha Stosur would have given Nadal a good run for his money in Charleston the day of that final, so Vera can't really be thrashed too much for that loss. Nonetheless she didn't get the "w."
But Davenport wasn't talking so much about Vera's crumbling finals' record as about her volatile emotional side, which might be, in fact, showing its dark side as Vera neared those first-place trophies. When emotions run amok, as they can and did with the Russian, technique suffers. It's a tenet of tennis.
Billie Jean King conceded that women's tennis "is not in a great place right now," according to the same article from Clarke. However, King also argued that "it's exaggerated by media, whom she [King] believes delight in pointing out injury or frailty (real or perceived) among female athletes."
We love the women and hate them. If only they would perform well at one time. Injuries cause so many problems for fans. Mental toughness, or lack of it, reveals just how difficult winning at the top can be. Closing out a match, during a major, isn't for the weak of mind. And, we must admit that Serena and Venus blast through because they are aces at mind control.
So is Henin, and so were Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Put them in a final, give them an opening and watch them ride their momentum.
But to compare the level of play then and now is unfair. The depth of the game wasn't there when Graf and Navratilova competed. The fitness wasn't there. And neither were the tennis strings that allow both men and women pros to accelerate their racquet heads with confidence.
So what we have in Doha this year is a 'free for all,' according to Steve Tignor. The gates are open. The green lights are on. Show your stuff and swing away. Not a bad perspective, either, we could admit.
Sam Stosur summed it up best, as she prepared to leave court this evening, after defeating Caroline Wozniacki 64 63, "It's the last week of the year. Might as well give it all I've got." Stosur's confidence is ripening.
Stosur's 2-0 record, having not dropped a set, places her firmly in contention for the title. Yes, Sam is a heavy weight. Her booming serve and startling forehand worked in combination today to upend the Dane. Had Wozniacki won today, she would've clinched the year-ending #1 ranking. One thing is certain, though, she'll come back tomorrow and fight harder. Her mental toughness is palpable at times. She hates to lose. She has a major in her.
If we can't have a blitz of a final in Doha, let's settle in and watch what's on hand and put comparisons aside. Samantha Stosur and Kim Clijsters are favored to meet on Sunday. That'd be big-babe tennis at its best, even if the others had played.
One minor aside: watch out for Francesca Schiavone. At five-foot-five and 30 years old, the French Open champion has variety that could dismantle a power game pegged to lengthy rallies and fleeting opportunities to smash a short ball.
Take for example Victoria Azarenka's game today against Zvonareva. Azarenka was up a break on two separate occasions, during the first set. Yet, Vera won it. Azarenka then came out in the second, breaking the Russian at love. Bang! Take that. But Zvonareva bided her time. Azarenka's serve had misfired frequently, as did Vera's for that matter. But she knew Azarenka showed no variety. She moved the ball around, but hugged the baseline. Only once did she strike a deep looping forehand at Zvonareva, throwing her off enough to force an error. Mostly, though, Vera kept balls in play and bet that Azarenka would fumble in the clutch. Bingo! Vera won 76 (4) 64.
Zvonareva probably won't be able to do that against Schiavone, the WTA Championships antithesis of a hard-hitting heavy weight.