Serena right where she belongs
Monday, November 2, 2009
Someone reviewing the major stories of the WTA season could be forgiven for looking back on the brouhaha attending Dinara Safina's tenure as the No. 1 player, scratching his head and asking: What was that all about?
The smoke has cleared on the battlefield, and Serena Williams is the last woman standing. She's right where she said she belongs, and where most pundits feel she deserved to be -- on top. Serena pounded the bejesus out of all comers at the Australian Open in January and then finished as the year-end No. 1 again.
But the top story in the WTA in 2009 isn't so much that Serena reclaimed her No. 1 position by year's end; it's that nobody was able to topple her along the way. For there hasn't been a less dominant, dominant player in a long time. Every week in '09, it seemed, those who doubted Serena's commitment, fitness or game had a legitimate case to make. Many weeks, Serena proved them right. But she remained in the hunt all along, knowing that one thing -- and one thing only -- matters when it comes to rankings: who finishes No. 1 at the end of the year.
So let's take a quick look at how the contenders and pretenders managed to allow the top ranking to slip through their sweaty little fingers:
She consistently came up short when she had the opportunity to consolidate her hold on the top spot or to make an authoritative statement validating the ranking. You can criticize her for reaching the top position without having won a Grand Slam title, but that happens in tennis.
The critical and disappointing failure was the way she found creative ways to bail out when she was in a position to prove her mettle. In tennis, for all but the very top players, it's all about windows of opportunity. But when the window opened for Safina, she walked over and closed the shutters. I wouldn't want to be her, embarking on 2010 with Kim Clijsters back in the hunt and Justine Henin also poised to return to the tour.
Maybe she did overtrain at the end of last year, explaining her horrific start to 2009. But that rationalization, accurate though it may be, has a short shelf life. It certainly doesn't explain her patchy, ragged, up-and-down year.
Jankovic is coy, a bit of a game-player. You can shuffle and slip and slide and sneak your way to a big title or two -- or even to the No. 1 ranking. But you can't become a dominant force in the game that way. She needs maturity, and she needs to simplify things and focus on the task at hand, week in, week out.
Want to be No. 1, Sveta? "No, but thanks for asking!"
It's funny how someone who seems like a no-nonsense player with great athletic gifts can find so many ways to avoid bagging a Grand Slam title or piecing together a run that takes her to the No. 1 ranking and keeps her there for good. My guess: She sabotages herself at some obscure emotional level.
The demand of greatness is tough enough to begin with; it's that much more crushing a burden when your heart isn't exactly or entirely into it. (Just ask Andre Agassi.) Venus has become an error-prone and somewhat sloppy player, which tells you that she's mentally played out. And her problems were further exacerbated by the fact that her kid sister, Serena, simply appeared to want the top ranking more.
She's got an A-game but a C-spirit.
She started strong but faded, consistently falling victim to her emotions. But unlike the self-pitying and easily broken down Zvonareva, Azarenka is a fighter who may learn to channel her anger and frustration in a positive manner. I'd watch out for her next year.
She gets a pass due to injury.
Ana Ivanovic: Please call home.
Her game may not blow you away, with its moon-balling, retrieving defensive cast. But she's got a great attitude
and took enormous strides in accepting her success with an impressive degree of composure and maturity. She shows signs of becoming a crafty, reliable and solid player who has what most of her peers lack -- the ability to find a way to win.
Wozniacki will have her work cut out for her in 2010, what with Serena, Kim and Justine in the picture. But "solid and reliable" can go a long way, if not all the way to the top, these days in the WTA.