Aussie women's title up for grabs ... unless you're American
Jan. 12, 2007
By Art Spander
The Sports Xchange/SportsLine.com
Women's tennis seems not so much a sport as a soap opera, full of intrigue, suspicions, personalities, pettiness, tears and enough magnificent groundstrokes to keep everyone believing.
We arrive at Australian Open '07 with the game's No. 1-ranked player, Justin Henin-Hardenne
, absent for "personal reasons," evidently a euphemism for marriage problems; with one Williams sister, Venus
, a withdrawal because of a wrist injury (do they have a DL in tennis?) and the other, Serena
, trying to find her game after yet another layoff; and with Maria Sharapova
being moved to the top of the seedings.
Justine Henin-Hardenne, who bowed out in the second set of last year's Aussie final, won't be in the '07 tournament. (Getty Images)
The ladies invariably prove much more fascinating than the men because of the little subplots to their drama (is Amelie Mauresmo
no longer to be considered a choker?) and because, gratefully, they don't have anyone as dominant as Roger Federer. Yes, there is a modicum of suspense.
Sharapova has been seeded No. 1 in only one other Grand Slam tournament, the 2005 U.S. Open, when she lost to Kim Clijsters
in the semis. Not that this matters. "Whatever you are seeded," Sharapova said correctly, "you have to go out and play your matches."
She played the heck out of them in last summer's U.S. Open, beating Mauresmo, the Aussie and Wimbledon champ, in the semis, and Henin-Hardenne, the French Open champ, in the final. It was as scripted.
In the days preceding we'd seen that Nike commercial built around this Maria, strutting to the song I Feel Pretty,
done in West Side Story,
by the other Maria, the heroine.
Sharapova is pretty heroic, and pretty noticeable. Although nominally a Russian, having been born there, she has lived in the U.S. for something like 12 of her 19 years and has numerous endorsements, none of which have anything to with caviar, vodka or Vladimir Putin.
Mauresmo is the second seed, Svetlana Kuznetsova
of Russia and Clijsters of Belgium, both U.S. Open winners, third and fourth. Clijsters, who has more aches and pains than the Williams sisters, which is about all you need to know, has said '07 is her last year on tour.
American tennis already has reached its termination point, if you consider the seedings. Of the 32 female players listed, not one has a U.S. passport. America's best, Lindsay Davenport
, is expecting a baby, and doesn't plan to get back into the game, and with Venus Williams invariably incapacitated and Serena trying to decide if being a TV actress isn't easier on her knee, the good days are gone. Probably forever.
Meanwhile, a lot of young women with names such as Petrova, Dementieva, Sarafina, Vaidisova, Jankovic and Hantuchova are intent on working their way toward the top. They may not be familiar enough to promote a lot shoes and apparel in the U.S., but that's our problem, not their problem.
Sharapova doesn't have any problems. Especially since the issue of illegally receiving coaching from the stands, her hitting coach waving a banana to remind Maria she ought to nibble on one, is now resolved. All advice is allowed. Hey, things change.
Not much changed in Sharapova from the time she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old. She ascended to the No. 1 ranking in 2005, slipped back to fourth after what the WTA media guide calls "an injury-marred second half of the year," and then, staying healthy, rebounded to No. 2 in 2006.
She's photogenic. She's feisty, having torn into the media for focusing on something other than her shots. "I believe at the end of the day," Maria grumped in September after the Open, "my life is not about a banana, it's not about what I wear, it's not about the friends I have. (That alluded to her rumored relationship with men's tour player Andy Roddick.)
"My career right now is about winning a tennis match. I'm sitting here as U.S. Open champion, and the last thing I think people need to worry about is a banana."
What women's tennis needs to worry about is the remarkable lack of U.S. potential. Not very long ago, Venus and Serena played in the U.S. Open final, two African-Americans, two sisters, making waves, making history. Supposedly the sport was going to take off in America. Instead it's taken its leave.
The Williams sisters, Davenport and Jennifer Capriati
have virtually disappeared, leaving a void that can't help the game. There are plans for an academy in Florida to develop new talent, but that hardly does much for the present.
These days, women's tennis belongs to the Russians, French, Belgians and Swiss (Martina Hingis
and Patty Schnyder
). To whom the Australian Open crown will belong remains a question, but a logical answer would be Maria Sharapova.