On Sunday, world No. 2 Jelena Jankovic won her second 2008 title at the China Open, racing past Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-2 in the final. Jankovic is now within a few points of regaining the top spot from Serena Williams, who hasn't played since out-toughing the Serbian in the last round of America's Grand Slam.
Jankovic has had a good but not great year and must be given credit for her consistency and how frequently she straps on her tennis shoes. But the 23-year-old is by no means a legend and is probably not even a legend in the making. Her ascent to No. 1 in early August without reaching a Grand Slam final was a sorry Open-era record, but that would have been quickly forgotten had she managed to claw her way to a three-set victory over Serena.
That she might ascend to No. 1 next week says something more profound: Too many great women's champions are retiring early and leaving some of the tour's biggest honors to those who should have needed more time to achieve them.
Had Belgian and seven-time grand Slam champion Justine Henin not unexpectedly retired in May at the relatively young age of 26, this topic might not be ripe for discussion. But with Henin joining other former Slam champs under the age of 29 like Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Anastasia Myskina in early retirement, it's worth noting.
"That's the face of tennis today, with a player who is reaching No.1 without winning a Grand Slam," Henin's coach Carlos Rodriguez told FOXsports.com of Jankovic, who was 0-9 against Henin. "It's a sign. She's a good player, but when you see Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters, they not only win Grand Slams, but they have the charisma. They give something extra, not only hitting balls. There's more behind them."
An intense and thoughtful man who took Henin out the juniors to tennis fame, Rodriguez and Henin just opened a branch of their 6th Sense Tennis Academy at the Mission Inn Resort & Club in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. They both see an opportunity in the U.S., where many parents of juniors are looking for intelligent coaches with proven track records who understand that teaching children to be champions is more than just about stroke production.
Rodriguez says that one of the reasons that Henin is retired is that she's looking to prove to herself that she can do more than just "hitting the ball" and will only likely consider a comeback once she has taken a very necessary mental break.
But what Henin left after she retired from her most dominant season ever in 2007 is a tour with three legitimate Hall of Fame players and a bunch of developing competitors who really couldn't hold her worn out pair of socks.
"I have a lot of respect for the other players, but outside of the Willamses and Sharapova, the rest are still really poor," Rodriguez said.
It's not like the Argentine doesn't like the potential of some of the kids — it's just that they are so wildly inconsistent. Take Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic, who is just 5-5 since winning her first Slam crown in Paris. Sven Groenefeld, whom Rodriguez considers the best coach on tour today, coaches the Serbian, but the 20-year-old is struggling mightily.
"I think Ana can do big things, but she needs more maturity," Rodriguez said. "It's very difficult for a player to learn what to do when she's in trouble. Ivanovic is not able to have a Plan B or C to solve the situations, and she loses complete control. The coach can help with this, but in the end, it's up to the player to find for herself what possibilities will work. The coach can only help you to a certain point."
Rodriguez spent a little time this past summer working with former world No. 4 Anna Chakvetadze but couldn't make it work with the Russian, who has spiraled downward to No. 12. On the outside, Chakvetadze appears to have all the ingredients that Rodriguez would like: foot speed, soft hands, the ability to take the ball on the rise and smarts. But he couldn't get through to the 21-year-old.
"Anna seems like she wants to work, but I told her, at the end of the day, deep inside of you, you don't want to try to go further and to push yourself more to succeed," he said. "I cannot help you if you don't have the will to do something, even if I'm the best or worst coach in the world. She has the talent. But she's really confused as to what she needs to do to succeed to do to become a No. 1 or No. 2 player in the world. She's not ready to make the sacrifices it takes to go to the top, there's not question about it. A champion is one inside and outside the court, and when you take Anna outside the court, she's really a disaster."
Somewhat incredibly, Rodriguez tabbed Nicole Vaidisova as the young player with the most potential. The Czech has the height, power and ball-striking capabilities to do major damage and has reached two Grand Slam semifinals, but the 19-year-old has had a depressing year, falling to No. 22 in the rankings. Vaidisova doesn't always play smart or look motivated.
"She's amazing," Rodriguez said. "It comes back to the entourage she has around her. It's so important. When you are talking mental, these girls are very strong, but when you are talking emotional, it's very hard. The emotional takes over the mental and she completely loses the way. It's a pity. I hope someone can take care of her because she's charismatic and is a really good player, but her emotional (state) and the intelligence is not that good."
Outside of the Williams sisters and Sharapova, there are no players on tour who can consistently win ugly when the chips are down, their bodies are aching and their foes are zoning on them. That's part of the make-up that Henin had, her innate ability to fight like an alley cat even when being attacked by every mangy dog in the alley.
"You can't teach that," Rodriguez said. "You can learn a lot of things, but you cannot change the natural personality of a player. With Serena, Venus, Justine and Jennifer Capriati, they have the personality that even when they weren't enjoying it, they could go through. There's no question that Maria, Serena and Venus are far and away from the other players. Their quality is too good."
Henin put a hurt on all of those players, who also got back at the Belgian in some of the finest matches the tour has seen this century. They may not miss losing to her, but Serena and Sharapova have admitted to missing the thrill of the battle against Henin, trying to figure out which strategy would work against the cagey all-courter's high-variety game.
But Henin isn't coming back anytime soon, if at all, so now it's up one of three other elite players to see if they can dominate like the Belgian did in 2007.
Sharapova just shut down her season due to her inability to recover a tear in her right rotator cuff, and when she returns to defend her Australian Open title in January, she will have more than likely have fallen out of the top 10 and will have missed the vast majority of the second part of the season. Whether the three-time Grand Slam champion can ever truly dominate is an open question.
"She showed that she's able to dominate, but it's not a question of once in a while, it's a question of regularity and the only way she can do it is to concentrate 100 percent on her tennis," Rodriguez said. "If Maria doesn't do that, she's never going to find the consistency throughout the year. In tennis, to be a champion, you have to choose to do everything you have to succeed in your sport. I think today Maria is unable to do so."
Crossover celebrity Sharapova has always stressed that her tennis comes first, and it's hard to argue with her resume. But it's also clear that carrying a $26-million off-court portfolio every year can be demanding. Rodriguez doesn't think that it's only her injuries that are holding her back.
"She has to concentrate, practice and live for her tennis — no endorsements, publicity and wasting time outside of the court with other things that distract you from No. 1," he said. "Once and for all, in front of the mirror, she has to ask herself, 'What do I want to achieve in my career?' I have all the possibilities to be No. 1 and stay there for a long time, but this is the price I have to pay."
Then there's Serena, she of nine Grand Slam titles and with the ambition to go well into the double digits. Now 27-years-old, Serena appears to be on a one Grand Slam per year pace. She's capable of doing better, but time is running short, and there's little room for the party circuit if she's ever going to dominate again.
She, Venus and Jankovic will tee it up in Stuttgart this week. If Serena wants to stay at No. 1, she's going to have to keep her mind focused on the next six weeks — not an easy task after a hard year and when the offseason beckons.
"Serena has the quality, and everything she needs mentally and physically to do it she has," Rodriguez said. "But is she going take care of herself and prepare to go into action? If she does that, I think Serena has another two or three great years left."