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bandabou
Oct 1st, 2004, 09:53 AM
The Price You Pay....

Tennis is a contentious sport. Not just in the sense that players compete. Even more contentious, perhaps, is tennis commentary. It's a rare statement that everyone agrees upon.

One of the few that gains universal consent is "Serena Williams was the dominant player of 2002."

And yet, she's paid something of a price over the two years since. Yes, she won two Slams and a few smaller titles in 2003, but that's a significant decline, and in 2004, she has no Slams and only two lesser titles, one of them in a very weak field. She spent half a year injured, hasn't won a clay title in more than two years, and fell out of the Top Ten for a while. 2003 was been a great year for her by most players' standards -- but by the standard she set in 2002, it's been a slump. And the less said of 2004, the better.

What's interesting is that the last player to have a year like Serena in 2002 was Martina Hingis in 1997, and her pattern was similar: Three Slams and a bunch of titles in 1997, then her results fell off in 1998 (one slam and five titles -- the latter being her lowest total between 1997 and 2000), and she eventually lost the #1 ranking, and was hurt for much of the fall. As with Serena, it wasn't a slump pure and simple -- Hingis, after all, did something in 1998 that no other player has done in the Open Era: She won the doubles Grand Slam with two different partners. Still, it's interesting to note that Hingis's next-best year in terms of titles, 2000, was followed by a similar outcome: a sharp decline in wins, a loss of the #1 ranking, and yet another foot injury, this one finally fatal to her career.

In other words, recently, the cost of a Great Year has been a bad year.

Does this pattern project backward? It's interesting to at least look.

We're going to define a Great Year as one which meets either of two standards: Three Slams, or eight singles titles (the latter picked because, until recently, it almost guaranteed that a player won half the events she played). We'll list all such years, then look briefly at what happened after. We'll examine the last 20 years, partly because that's about when WTA records become reliable and partly because that's all the work we feel like doing. In that period, we have 21 "great years" (11 in which the player qualified based on 8+ titles, 2 in which she qualified based on 3+ Slams, and 8 in which the player earned both):

Kim Clijsters 2003. Results: 9 titles, #1 ranking (briefly), 2 doubles Slams
2004 results: 2 titles to date, just returning to action after missing three Slams; unlikely to finish year in Top Ten

Justine Henin-Hardenne 2003. Results: 2 Slams, 8 titles, #1 ranking
2004 results: 1 Slam, 5 titles to date, missed Wimbledon and should not have played Roland Garros; unlikely to finish above #4

Serena Williams 2002. Results: 3 Slams, 8 titles, #1 ranking, 1 doubles Slam
2003 results: 2 Slams, 4 titles, 1 doubles Slam, year-end #3 ranking; missed U. S. Open

Martina Hingis 2000. Results: 9 titles, 1 doubles Slam, #1 ranking
2001 results: 3 titles, 0 doubles Slams (only year between 1996 and 2002 with no doubles Slams), year-end #4; missed most of indoor season, retired the year after

Martina Hingis 1997. Results: 3 Slams, 12 titles, #1 ranking, 1 doubles Slam
1998 results: 1 Slam, 5 titles, doubles Grand Slam, year-end #2

Steffi Graf 1996. Results: 3 Slams, 7 titles, #1 ranking
1997 results: 1 title (and it a Tier III); missed Wimbledon, U. S. Open

Steffi Graf 1995. Results: 3 Slams, 9 titles, #1 ranking
1996 results: See above: 3 Slams, 7 titles, #1 ranking

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 1994. Results: 2 Slams, 8 titles, 1 doubles Slam, year-end #2 but achieved #1 ranking in 1995
1995 results: 0 Slams, 2 titles, 2 doubles Slams, year-end #3

Steffi Graf 1993. Results: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking
1994 results: 1 Slam, 7 titles, year-end #1 but barely

Monica Seles 1992. Results: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking
1993 results: Not applicable, really

Steffi Graf 1992. Results: 1 Slam, 8 titles, year-end #2
1993 results: See above: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking

Monica Seles 1991. Results: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking
1992 results: See above: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking

Steffi Graf 1990. Results: 1 Slam, 10 titles, #1 ranking
1991 results: 1 Slam, 7 titles, year-end #2

Monica Seles 1990. Results: 1 Slam, 9 titles, year-end #2
1991 results: See above: 3 Slams, 10 titles, #1 ranking

Steffi Graf 1989. Results: 3 Slams, 14 titles, #1 ranking
1990 results: See above: 1 Slam, 10 titles, #1 ranking

Martina Navratilova 1989. Results: 0 Slams, 8 titles, 2 doubles Slams, year-end #2
1990 results: 1 Slam, 5 titles, 1 doubles Slam, year-end #3.

Steffi Graf 1988. Results: 4 Slams, 10 titles, 1 doubles Slam, #1 ranking
1989 results: See above: 3 Slams, 14 titles, #1 ranking

Martina Navratilova 1988. Results: 0 Slams, 9 titles, 2 doubles Slams, year-end #2
1989 results: See above: 0 Slams, 8 titles, 2 doubles Slams, year-end #2

Steffi Graf 1987. Results: 1 Slam, 11 titles, #1 ranking
1988 results: See above: 4 Slams, 10 titles, 1 doubles Slam, #1 ranking

Martina Navratilova 1986. 2 Slams (of 3 played), 14 titles, 3 doubles Slams (of 3 played), #1 ranking
1987 results: See above: 2 Slams, 4 titles, 3 doubles Slams, year-end #2

Martina Navratilova 1985. 2 Slams, 13 titles, 2 doubles Slams, #1 ranking
1986 results: See above: 2 Slams, 14 titles, 3 doubles Slams, #1 ranking

Chris Evert 1985. 1 Slam, 11 titles, year-end #2
1986 results: 1 Slam (of 3 played), 3 titles, year-end #2

Martina Navratilova 1984. 3 Slams, 15 titles, doubles Grand Slam, #1 ranking
1985 results: See above: 2 Slams, 13 titles, 2 doubles Slams, #1 ranking

What is perhaps most fascinating is the decline of Great Years. In the 10-year span from 1984-1993, we had 15 Great Years, meaning that as often as not, two players had great years in the same year. In the 5-year span 1994-1999, we had only four Great Years, and never more than one in a year. Since 1997, we've had only four Great Years, two of them last year and both of those at the low end of the scale.

But wait, there's more: In the early years of our study, having a Great Year was no real bar to having a Great Year the next year; 10 of our 15 Great Year-ers managed it, and Monica Seles probably would have made it 11 had she not been stabbed. Since then, we've had only one back-to-back: Graf in 1995-1996. The last six Great Year-ers have all been significantly injured the next year (Graf 1997, Hingis 1998, Hingis 2001, Serena 2003, Clijsters 2004, Henin-Hardenne 2004 -- though her injury was actually illness, and she has a faint chance to achieve a Great Year in 2004 if she can win three more titles. But Henin-Hardenne has just withdrawn from Filderstadt).

Another point: Players used to produce many Great Years in their careers. Graf had eight. Seles had three and should have had more. Navratilova had five just in the portion of her career covered by this survey. Compare the results since 1996. Hingis has had two, one of them at the low end of the scale; no one else has had more than one, though of course Serena, Henin-Hardenne, and Clijsters are all young. Still, what are they odds that any of them will manage half a dozen great years?

Given the data, we can't prove that Great Years cause injury; the lack of repeats may just be that everything is getting harder these days. But there is no question: It's a lot more unusual to maintain a high level than it used to be.