Who do you expect would square off in the women’s singles final at Wimbledon this year? It’s comparatively easy to predict the men’s final line-up. The top five players of the men’s tour account for 47 of 50 Grand Slam titles since 2005. In women’s tennis, however, uncertainty is the dominant theme.
The other dominant theme, Serena Williams, is resting. Unless, of course, she is in the stands cheering her elder sister, Venus, who at age 37 is still going strong, ranked No.11 in the world. Serena, 35, who has won 72 singles titles, including 23 Grand Slams (a record in the Open era, starting 1968, and one short of the all-time record held by Margaret Court), has taken a break from the game as she is expecting a child—her first—later this year. Women’s tennis, then, seems set for life without Serena. But where do we start?
What about Jelena Ostapenko? When the 20-year-old Latvian won the French Open last month, she became the youngest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title since Maria Sharapova won the Wimbledon in 2004 at the age of 17. But does Ostapenko have it in her to win more? “She definitely has," says Cliff Drysdale, a former player on the men’s tour, an International Tennis Hall Of Famer and now an ESPN commentator. “It’s a low-percentage game (in simple words, she hits the ball hard), and there aren’t many strategic issues with her game," says Drysdale over the phone from the US. The danger, though, is this: Will Ostapenko go the way of some recent new Grand Slam women’s champions or will she build on her French Open win?
After winning the French Open last year, Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain played in 19 tournaments till the event this year. Her best performances were three semi-final finishes. Along the way, her Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranking dropped from 2 to 14.
World No.1, Angelique Kerber, won two Grand Slams last year. This year, the German has hardly made any statements. Of the 12 tournaments she has played so far, her best finish was in the Abierto GNP Seguros finals in April.
At the French Open, she lost in the first round.
“It’s going to be a time when nobody dominates," says former doubles player and ESPN commentator Pam Shriver, over the phone from Los Angeles. “We’re going to see many different winners on the women’s tour. There is a lot of parity in the women’s game now, a lot of sameness among many top players." That would make it the exact opposite of what is happening on the men’s tour.
“The absence of a big weapon in the women’s arsenal is part of the problem," says Mary Carillo, an American sportscaster and former tennis professional, in an email interview. “The women must be able to take care of their serves. Serena has been dominant because of her willingness to fight, even (when she is) down, out of sorts, sometimes even out of shape....What has saved her time and again is the strength of her serve. I do not think you can sustain your spot at No.1 without that."
Carillo gives the examples of Martina Hingis, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Janković and Kerber, players who have lost their top ranking in recent years because they couldn’t hold their service games. “The women’s game needs a dominant server," she says.
An open race to the No.1 spot could be good news for the rest of the field. World No.2 Simona Halep of Romania, for instance. After a slow start this year (she lost in the first round at the Australian Open), Halep was the runner-up at the 2017 French Open.
“I am very happy, indeed, that after a slow start...due to injuries, I could play and produce my best tennis (at the French Open)," Halep says on email. Karolina Plíšková, the world No.3, from the Czech Republic, is another contender for the year-end top ranking, having won four titles so far this year.
Still, the field is wide open. Of the 33 tournaments played this year till 26 June, only Elina Svitolina from Ukraine has won four titles. Three others—Karolina Plíšková, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Johanna Konta—have won two titles each and a staggering 23 women have won a title each this year.
Carillo picks Plíšková for the top spot because of her big serve. “It’s why I would favour Plíšková over Kerber, Halep or even Ostapenko. If Jelena improves her serve, she can win majors on other surfaces, which would be exciting and welcome…and it’s why I believe that Muguruza can rise again."
Drysdale is less optimistic about the current state of women’s tennis. He remembers a time when interest in a major used to dip when Rod Laver, the 11-time singles Grand Slam winner from Australia, wasn’t participating. “I think it (Serena’s absence) will be a downer on the women’s tour too for a while. Some people like the uncertainty, some don’t," he says.
If that is the case, the return of Maria Sharapova, Victória Azárenka from Belarus and Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic could help the WTA tour. While Sharapova is returning after a 15-month doping ban, Azárenka is coming back from a maternity break. Kvitová, a two-time Wimbledon champion, is recovering from an injury to her dominant left hand that she sustained during a knife attack at her home last year.
Comebacks are like fairy tales in sports, says Stephen Duckitt, tournament director of the Tianjin Open and Taiwan Open, on the women’s tennis tour. “There has been a long history of high-profile players who have spent time out of the game and then returned to the top," he says. “I would be very surprised if that was not the case for Maria and Vika (Azárenka); they are both amazing, competitive and determined athletes."
What can a tournament do to make things easier for women’s tennis players?
“Players coming back after having a baby is not a new thing. Today there are a lot of players that travel with young kids on both tours," says Duckitt. “Many tournaments are embracing that by ensuring that there are adequate facilities at the events, including crèches, lounge areas, and necessary arrangements for transportation."
Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive officer of the WTA, says in an email interview that he is taking a close look at the calendar of tournaments to streamline events for players and “ensure that more top players get to play at most tennis tournaments". And in an interview last September, Simon hinted that the definition of tournaments might change. At present, all tournaments must be classed under one of four categories: WTA Premier Mandatory, WTA Premier 5, WTA Premier and WTA international. Players are required to play a minimum number of events, depending on their ranking. For example, the top 10 players must play in at least the four Premier Mandatory events and four of the Premier 5 tournaments. But injuries and fatigue are common and there are frequent last-minute withdrawals. In 2016, Serena skipped all the tournaments after losing the semi-finals of the US Open in September. “The scheduling should not be a burden on players that could force them to withdraw at the last minute...to ensure that women’s tennis’ popularity picks up, we’re linking these measures...to encourage the build-up of better match quality of women’s tennis and to create an environment to nurture women tennis players," says Simon.
This recategorization, says Shriver, could also result in more top players per tournament, a recipe she says could result in good rivalries, something that women’s tennis is missing at the moment. “There isn’t enough star power to distribute between two tournaments that get played in the same week. We need to have more top players to play in the same city," she says.
Shriver and other experts believe Serena will be back in 2018. As of now, anyone could lose in the first round and almost anyone could win a Grand Slam.
Any guesses who will win at Wimbledon?