Is There a Recession in Women’s Tennis?

by on March 7th, 2015
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As an aging Serena Williams, closing in on her 30th birthday, begins her campaign to capture her fourteenth major just weeks after returning from an entire year away the tour, it prompts the question, is women’s tennis experiencing a recession?

With every new generation of players, the game evolves and progresses. From Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; Steffi Graf and Monica Seles to Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Venus and Serena Williams, the women’s game has become faster, more powerful, and, generally speaking, better.

However, in the wake of the abrupt retirements of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters coinciding with the forays into the business and fashion world’s by the Williams sisters, a parade of substandard Champions and second-rate World Number Ones have forged themselves a place at the top of the women’s game. Players such as Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Jelana Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki have made it to the top of the rankings, affording WTA journey-women Francesca Schiavone and Li Na to pick up their maiden Grand Slams years beyond their athletic prime.

Often between great eras in sport, opportunities arise for lesser athletes to rise to the top, and this has also been true for the men’s game. Between the eras of Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick were able to claim the top spot in the rankings; players who have since struggled to stay within touching distance from the top despite arguably improving. This also meant that there were opportunities for players such as Goran Ivanisevic to come back and win Wimbledon, seven years past his peak.

Arguably between 2001 and 2004, the ATP Tour was experiencing a recession, just as I believe the women’s game is today.

This recession has led to the unprecedented success of players post-retirement.

After over two years away from the game, Kim Clijsters was able to capture the US Open title in her very first major, after coming out of retirement just a few months earlier in the summer of 2009.

Had she improved in her time away from the game, or did she see that the game was less competitive than when she left it?

This in turn inspired Justine Henin to resume her career a few months later, making it all the way to the final in Australia at her first attempt.

Perhaps the two had spent their two years away from the game secretly practicing. Or, perhaps they realized that they didn’t need to be practicing to compete with the players who attempted to fill the gaps they left behind.

I was personally hoping that Steffi Graf would drag her husband out onto the practice court and make at a run at Wimbledon that year, but it wasn’t to be. Had she done, would anyone have been surprised if she won?

Remarkably, Serena Williams was seen by many as the favorite going into Wimbledon despite not having competed in a year. Although she fell short at this seemingly obligatory quick rise back to the top, heading into the US Open, one would expect her to be a serious threat.

A well-trained eye will have noticed the glaring omission of five-time Grand Slam Champion, Martina Hingis, from the aforementioned list of players. This was no mistake. In the wake of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, a giant chasm formed at the top of the WTA Rankings, and Hingis was there in the right place, at the right time. However, her game was, in my opinion, a step backward from the previous generations’, and I believe she knew it. When she lost the 1999 French Open final to the 30-year-old Steffi Graf, it became abundantly clear that she was only a pretender to the crown. Fortunately, she was the only pretender, so she could pretend all she wanted until the Williams sisters came along and spoiled the party.

And that’s what’s happening now. With no rightful claims on the crown, many pretenders are running amuck. Former Queens of the court are extending their careers long beyond their prime, cashing in on the void left behind them, and the next generation are hard to spot.

Perhaps Wimbledon Champion, Petra Kvitova will be the one to take the mantle and elevate the game to the next level.

Personally, I think it’s more likely you’ll see a Navratoliva-Graf Wimbledon final in 2012.

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