Wall Street Journal: Women's Tennis Lacks A Real Dominant Number One Player.
Where's the Real Women's No.1?
As the French Open Begins, There's Still No Sign of a Consistent World Best
By TOM PERROTTA
Paris—Women's tennis desperately wants to discover a convincing No. 1 player. The search is ongoing and leads are scarce.
At the French Open Monday, top seed Victoria Azarenka stumbled and screeched her way to a 6-7(6), 6-4, 6-2 victory over Alberta Brianti, a 32-year-old Italian who is ranked No. 105 in the world. Azarenka missed often, made poor decisions and looked miffed as she took practice swings with her backhand, which accounted for 22 of her 60 unforced errors. She was one point from falling behind 5-0 in the second set when she hit a second serve ace on the line.
"I'm lucky," Azarenka said.
Belarus's Victoria Azarenka looks dejected during her first-round match against Italy's Alberta Brianti in Paris on Monday.
American Women at Home in Paris
Brianti has never won a match at the French Open (she's now 0-5). She has a 1-13 record against Top 20 players and she's 0-6 against the Top 10. She's hardly a striking presence on the court—5-foot-5 and 132 pounds—and hits first serves in the low 100 mph range. Her second serve barely breaks 70 mph, and she hasn't mastered the maddening topspin that helped her countrywoman, Francesca Schiavone, win this title in 2010. She's just the sort of player a No. 1 should stomp on, but Azarenka could not.
As she won the Australian Open earlier this year and took over the No. 1 ranking, Azarenka looked liked she might be the woman to break a long string of disappointing top players. She won her first 26 matches of the season, the longest streak to start a year in women's tennis since Martina Hingis in 1997.
And then came the clay court season. This spring, Azarenka has lost finals to Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, two former No. 1 players with multiple Grand Slam titles. Then she had to withdraw from her second-round match in Rome with a shoulder injury.
"It's much better," she said. "The pain went away, but I didn't have much time to prepare."
For the first two sets, it looked as if Azarenka hadn't played in years. She sprayed backhands long and into the net. She slumped her shoulders and stared at her feet. As she muddled along, she said she contemplated a 3 p.m. flight to Minsk, Belarus, the next day.
"Sometimes I thought, 'Yeah, maybe I still fight, I still have a chance,'" she said. "Sometimes it was like, 'You know what? Forget it. I don't want to do it.'"
It's as if there's a hex on the No. 1 ranking in women's tennis. Since Ana Ivanovic took the top spot by winning the 2008 French Open, no No. 1 has played up to the part.
Ivanovic dropped in the rankings and lost to a player ranked No. 188. Jelena Jankovic, the next No. 1, lost to an opponent ranked No. 124 and is now ranked No. 21. This spring, Jankovic lost her opening match in four straight clay-court tournaments; in her first-round match Monday, she beat Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, No. 85, in three sets after losing the opening set 6-1.
There's more. After Dinara Safina got to No. 1, she won three more titles and has since dropped off the Tour with injuries (she hasn't played in more than a year). Caroline Wozniacki held on to the top ranking for more than a year, but she's now No. 9 and searching for answers with a new coach, former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, who was hired in the past few weeks. She hasn't won a title in nine months.
None of these players has won a Grand Slam title since reaching No. 1 and three of them have since lost to women ranked lower than No. 100.
Normally, a top player doesn't fade so quickly. Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo, who just started consulting for Azarenka, each won almost 80% of their matches in the year after reaching No. 1. Each won two more major titles and Sharapova is a strong contender to win in Paris and beyond.
Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Serena and Venus Williams each won at least five titles and 86% of their matches in the year after reaching the top. And that's despite having to compete against one another.
If there's no hope for a consistent—never mind dominant—No. 1, at least there's perhaps a chance we'll see a woman who is consistently good, and maybe great, at one tournament. That woman? Li Na, the defending French Open champion.
Li didn't adapt well to the demands placed on her as the first person from China to win a major singles title: She said she wasted "half a year" just trying to find her game again.
"For me, always like up, down, up, down," she said. "It's tough for me to stay same level all the time."
In her last five tournaments, though, she has reached at least the quarterfinals, and she started on an up note in Paris Monday as she drubbed Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-1. If she wasn't so old—30—one might say she looked like a future No. 1. A real one.
—Carl Bialik contributed to this article.