Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Women's Tennis - Under-appreciated Still

There still exists a less than helpful section of the tennis world which appears to want to cling to the notion that the sport is essentially a male domain to which women only have associate entitlements.

Of course thanks to Billie Jean King and her warriors, we for over 40 years have had a professional women's tour that stands alone in the sport.
Irrespective of that, every year at every Grand Slam event the old argument about prize money is raised by those that believe playing best of five sets is deserving of greater reward than doing it in best of three, and that equal prize money for women is unfair.

And then there is the equally tiresome one about how the men hit the ball harder, they move faster, and so clearly the matches are more interesting to watch.

At the pointy end of proceedings that latter argument has some merit - currently if you were to choose to watch a final between the 2 best men - Rafa and Novak - or the 2 best women - Serena and Vika - no question the guys have it.  However there is a lot of boring men's tennis played on the way to the final few matches, and we often have to suffer through the tedium at Grand Slam level until someone has managed to win 3 sets of the stuff.

That's not what I'm going to talk about here though.  I've said enough about that and my opinion on prize money is unchanged.  It should be equal by gender.

Today it's about the depth of the respective tours and over the past few years there has been a progressive shift.  No longer can the boys claim to have the numbers here.  It used to be the boast that a man ranked in the top 50 or so was capable of winning against anyone else above them on a given day.

While that is still a true statement, the given day is now closer to once in a blue moon than a distinct possibility.  Especially so if it is the elite that are being tested.  For too long now men's tennis has been dominated by a very few - for a long time Federer and Nadal, before the emergence of Djokovic and now Murray has seen the club membership reach four.

Even with the slow slide of Federer, no one is seriously rating Ferrer as a Grand Slam title threat above the Fab Four.  Sure Del Potro, Berdych, Ferrer, Wawrinka are doing Ok, but none has taken the step into the world of the Grand Slam winning 4 apart from Del Potro's brief foray in 2009.

The interest now is with the unpredictability of results on the women's tour, leaving aside Serena because she is freakish and cannot be usefully included in statistical analysis such as this.

Apart from Serena, finalists in last year's Grand Slam events included Vika Azarenka, Li Na, Maria Sharapova, Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki with Bartoli a debut winner.
For the men it was Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Ferrer and no debut winner.

Just taking note of what has happened in Australia and elsewhere this summer we can see how insecure a top 10, even top 5 ranking can be.

The 8th ranked and 4th seed Jelena Jankovic took Azarenka to 3 sets in Brisbane in the semis yet was dumped in the first round in Sydney by unseeded Makarova.
5th ranked and top seed Agnieszka Radwanska was given her marching orders by capable and colourful American Bethanie Mattek-Sands first up, and Aga won the same event in 2013.
10th ranked and 6th seed Wozniacki lost out to Safarova in the second round.
9th ranked and 5th seed Kerber survived her first round match, but having to play highly credentialed but unseeded Cibulkova was never going to be a picnic.  Just shows how competitive the WTA has become and what the season promises to be.

Li Na, 2011 Roland Garros champ, and one of the established brigade, stormed her way to number three in the world on the back of a brilliant finish to 2013, and she has already won her first event of this year in China.
Ana Ivanovic, another previous winner at Roland Garros, just won in Auckland - her first tournament win in over two years.  I've predicted her moving back to top ten for each of the past two years - so third time lucky Ana will join her Serbian compatriot Jankovic in the top ten by 2014 end.

We have seen the emergence of Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens signalling maybe another generation of US power together with Madison Keys, the rise of Roberta Vinci from a wonderful doubles player into one of the best by herself, Kirsten Flipkens looking to restart the Belgian train, and Genie Bouchard putting Canada back on the map.  So the WTA is offering plenty, not just from the top few, but from a large group, many of whom have claims on a top ten position by year's end.

Serena may be far and away the best but there is a scramble for the next several spots and that's one good reason why women's tennis should be regarded more seriously by those embedded in old age chauvinistic views of the world, unwilling to appreciate the value offered by women playing this sport at such a level of excellence.

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