What makes women’s tennis unique? Balance at the top.
|Women’s tennis is no longer dominated by a few strong alpha females, such as the days when Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert played. Martina and Chris returned to the FCC last year to celebrate the tournament’s storied 35 year history.
It wasn’t always this way.
For the better part of 40 years, women’s tennis was dominated by one or two sterling individuals. The names are legendary. Over the last 40 years, just five players enjoyed the role of alpha female – Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. Others have scaled the tennis mountain since formal rankings began in 1975 (Evonne Goolagong, Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Martina Hingis all claimed the top spot), but none dominated with the consistency of their fore bearers.
That all changed a few years back when Grand Slam fields began to feature up to eight (yes, count them, eight) former No. 1’s. It was a remarkable moment in professional tennis – unprecedented balance at the top, with no clear frontrunner. This historic level of parity was unique to women’s tennis – men’s tennis had Federer, men’s golf had Tiger (and still does) and women’s golf had Sorenstam. When you tuned in to watch tennis or golf, chances were strong that the game’s frontrunner would dominate, or closely contest. But when eight former number one’s are locked in the same draw – well, all bets were off.
As an avid tennis fan, and former college player and tennis coach, the parity was magical, affirming the notion that, on any given day, each of these spectacular players could emerge victorious. However much we enjoyed the "good old days," we knew that when Evert, Navratilova and Graf took the court, they would dominate (unless, of course, they were playing each other). Sure, they lost once in a while, but for the most part, the outcome was set in stone and, in some small way, doused the excitement of competition.
Fast forward to the year 2000. Over the subsequent five years, nine women would claim the top spot, heralding an unprecedented half-decade of competition. The game was up for grabs and every time you bought a ticket to a grand slam, or WTA tournament, you had no idea who would end up in the winner’s circle. From May 2000 to August 2005, here’s who reached the mountaintop of women’s tennis:
1. Lindsay Davenport
2. Martina Hingis
3. Jennifer Capriati
4. Venus Williams
5. Serena Williams
6. Kim Clijsters
7. Justine Henin
8. Amelie Mauresmo
9. Maria Sharapova
Just four of these women are still on the circuit, and two of them are plagued by injuries (Mauresmo and Sharapova). And though Clijsters recently announced a comeback, and new entrants Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic both have claimed top spot on the tour, the women’s game lacks the luster it enjoyed the first half of this decade.
|Dominiki Cibulkova, a 19-year-old ranked World No. 16, is seed 9 in this year’s FCC.|
Can it return to its lofty heights? Without question. The game’s worldwide prestige, not to mention the healthy payouts, are bringing dozens of worthy competitors into the game, and next week we may glance at the next generation’s superstars – stars such as 18 year old Carolina Wozniacki (Denmark), 19 year old Victoria Azarenka (Belarus), 19 year old Dominika Cibulkova (Slovakia) and 21 year old Aleksandra Wozniak (Canada). Three other rising stars – 19 year old Alize Cornet (France), 20 year old Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland) and 22 year old Anna Chakvetadze (Russia) plan to pass on this year’s Family Circle Cup, but all three are predicted to compete at the highest levels in years to come.
Final note of interest: as the women’s game seeks to emerge from its competitive lull, the men’s game is now reviving. In the last 12 months competition at the top has heated up, with Roger Federer now facing four worthy rivals – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Parity is afoot. But don’t expect golf to follow suit. Tiger has claimed the top spot for the better part of 11 years (Vijay Singh was number one for a stretch during 2005). And based on Tiger’s comeback last week at the Palmer Invitational, we could be in for another 11.
|Who will lead the next generation of tennis superstars? 18-year-old Carolina Wozniacki is seeded 6 at the FCC with a world ranking of 12.|