Where has it all gone wrong for women's tennis?
Premature retirements and loss of form are robbing the women's game of the sort of great rivalries that have kept fans enthralled in years gone by
Steffi Graf sits court-side at Roland Garros looking more bemused than bewitched, more deflated than elated. Ten years before, in the French Open final, she had electrified the crowd with a stunning defeat of Martina Hingis, who, confronted by her opponent's resolute brilliance, had gone into psychological meltdown.
Now Graf is in the stands to present the trophy to the 2009 champion. Almost unbelievably, it is the first women's match she has watched in the flesh in the 10 years since she stopped playing, not long after dispatching Hingis, to go off and marry Andre Agassi. Little wonder, then, that she looks so troubled as she surveys an all-Russian final between the world No1 Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova that has fewer peaks than a Dutch landscape.
"I found it really hard to watch," says Graf, before graciously trying to dampen any criticism of the players. "I know how it is out there when you get nervous and tight, and you can't show your potential – or even play close to your normal game."
Maybe, but in Graf's case big-title matches unfailingly brought the best out of her. It seemed to Graf a matter of honour that she should do credit to the office of top-ranked player in the world. In Paris, Safina's performance is grim. Kuznetsova has to play no more than moderately well to lift her first French Open title.
"That's for you to judge," Graf says, deflecting an attempt to finesse out of her whether she thinks women's tennis was better when she played than it is now. "I just don't watch it enough. I see them and I know their faces, but I haven't really gotten into their games."
Those who have "gotten into their games" are becoming increasingly dismayed. Something seems to have gone wrong with women's tennis, which, only a year ago, was in sufficiently good health – despite the retirement of Justine Henin while still world No1 – for these pages to celebrate its achievements. A big fashion photograph of Venus and Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, five of the very personable stars at the top of the women's game, accompanied the article.
What happened next was quite a shock. Ivanovic, Jankovic and Sharapova, the top three seeds, were all eliminated before the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and it was left to the enigmatic Williams sisters to rescue the competition by staying the course until the final.
The performances that led to the exit of the leading three seeds were all abject, none more so than Sharapova's. She was humbled twice by Alla Kudryavtseva, a fellow Russian ranked 154 in the world – first on court and then in the interview room. "It's very pleasant to beat Maria," Kudryavtseva said, "because I don't like her outfit… it was a little too much of everything. It was one of my motivations to beat her." Hitting the fashion-conscious Sharapova in her dress sense was possibly more painful for the former champion than her defeat.
Come the US Open, seven weeks later, Sharapova was sidelined by a serious injury to her right shoulder, two tears in the rotator cuff, while Ivanovic was so out of sorts, having suffered from cysts in her right thumb, that she lost to a qualifier in the second round. Although Jankovic reached the final, where she lost in straight sets to Serena Williams, she too was starting to struggle to hold her place in the top five.
The decline continues. Twelve months on and the poster girls who were the top three seeds for Wimbledon are down the rankings at six (Jankovic), 13 (Ivanovic) and 59 (Sharapova), which has left the Williams sisters – Serena at two and Venus at three – surrounded in the top 10 by a bunch of east Europeans who are more front office than box office. The top spot in the rankings has changed eight times in a year.
Whatever anyone may say, the absence of an American successor to the Williamses – more than 50 places in the rankings separate Venus from the next US player, Bethanie Mattek-Sands – must be worrying for the tour's long-term wellbeing.
Graf is less reticent about commenting when it comes to the question of having star players to illuminate the women's game. "It always helps if you have a few names like Sharapova or the Williams sisters that people get used to seeing over a period of time," she says. "Fans enjoy their rivalries and like to live some of their dramas and their difficulties, and have time to get know them a little more intimately, a little more personally."
Now, though, there is real concern that Sharapova, despite the fact she is in the early stages of a comeback, may never again be the contender she once was. "The question is, will she ever be healthy?" Nick Bollettieri, her former coach, asked recently. "Once you get that shoulder injury, you're going to start changing the serve motion."
Chris Evert, who, like Graf, is a true former star of the women's game, is despondent about the prospects of a recovery of form by either Ivanovic or Jankovic. Ivanovic's game, Evert says, is streaky and she does not give the impression that she is ready to repeat her success at the 2008 French Open.
Jankovic, meanwhile, has come up with a dog-ate-my-homework excuse for her decline: she blames off-season conditioning for making her overly muscular and limiting her movement. This is the same Jankovic who, only last year, made light of playing 97 matches in 2007, saying: "It's the way you prepare, the way your body is."
An American tennis magazine responded to the disappointing women's event at last year's US Open by running a story that it flagged on its cover with the words: "Can the women's tour be fixed?" Inside, it did a mock-up of a wanted ad, which began: "Most successful women's sports league in history seeks motivated, fierce, supremely athletic competitor to lead it into the next decade… Camera-friendly smile preferred." It finished by inviting applicants to send a covering letter and resume to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
The story itself was derisive, labelling the pretenders of the women's draw unworthy of a practice session with the Williams sisters, and was particularly scornful of Safina, who was within a few months of taking over as world No1. In losing to Serena Williams 6-3, 6-2 in the semi-final, Safina made 41 unforced errors. At the time, it did not matter so much that Safina's form wavered, but now she is officially the world's top player and still cannot give a good account of herself – and, by extension, the women's game – in high-profile matches such as the Paris final. This must be of some concern.
Graf, happily retired, may excuse Safina's shortcomings, but some of those still heavily involved are not so relaxed about it. "We all know who the real number one is," Serena Williams said during the Italian Open in Rome last month. "Quite frankly, I'm the best in the world." With 10 grand-slam titles, including this year's Australian Open, to Safina's big fat zero, Williams has a strong case – and one that must cause embarrassment to the governing body, the Women's Tennis Association.
It does not help the WTA that it is currently in a state of transition, with Larry Scott about to vacate his post as chairman and chief executive, having been hugely successful over the past six years in securing the organisation's financial stability. The plain old WTA became the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour under his stewardship, thanks to an $88m deal that remains in place until the end of next year. Also, since Scott took over, revenue and sponsorship have multiplied several-fold.
But investors tend to only like enterprises that guarantee substance, even when times are not as straitened as they are now, and, unless things buck up soon, some of those with high stakes in the women's tour may start to look to put their money elsewhere.
It does not help that men's tennis is in rude health at the moment, led by a quartet of outstanding players – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – whose keen rivalry is in marked contrast to the uneven fare currently being churned out by the women. Scott's defence of the game he is leaving sounds a little tired. "The top of the women's game and battle for No1 is as intriguing as it has ever been. There has never been more depth in terms of quality of play and the number of marketable stars in the game rivals any sport, bar none," he says.
One answer to catching up with the men may be for the WTA, having won the battle for its members to be granted equal prize-money, to press for them to do the same amount of work and play best-of-five-set matches in the grand slams. Opponents will groan that this is a recipe for more dross, but women have suffered from not having the longer form available to them.
The most memorable matches tend to be the protracted duels between the top men – but consider last year's Wimbledon singles finals. The Williams sisters had to stop after two robust sets, while Nadal and Federer kept going after the Spaniard had dominated two unremarkable sets. We all know what happened next – a match that on its own was enough to sustain the reputation of the men's game for years to come.
Disappointingly, but not altogether surprisingly, when the best-of-five suggestion was put to Ivanovic last week her immediate response was: "What – and drive us into oblivion?"
It was the sort of meek reaction that some may see as the reason Ivanovic has failed to build on the foundation of her early successes. It would almost certainly have gained her a stinging reply had she uttered it in the presence of Billie Jean King, the American champion of the rights of women's players, who advocated women playing five-set matches in the 1970s.
Women's tennis has been in the position it is now before and rebounded strongly. What is alarming this time is the number of players in their prime who are either retiring – Kim Clijsters may return, but she cannot reclaim some of the prime playing years she has passed up – or whose careers are stalling, as those of Jankovic and Ivanovic appear to be doing.
Women's tennis has the bounty – now it needs to find bounty hunters who have the resilience and star quality that Graf possessed.