Serena and the Va's

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 /by

Vz Kvitova, Pironkova, Schiavone, Stosur: Are you wondering where these women came from? Are you wondering what’s happening in women’s tennis right now? You’re not alone. This was supposed to be the year when the old ruling class—in short, the Williamses, the Belgians, and Maria Sharapova—was going to be reconstituted and set loose against each other in one epic Grand Slam final after another. Instead, the last two majors have brought us a parity that's bordering on chaos.

Partially, this has been a product of the draws, and the wrench that the current rankings of Justine Henin and Sharapova have thrown into them. Henin had to face Sharapova and Stosur early in Paris, and Clijsters early at Wimbledon. Maria, who seemed to be playing as well as anyone, had to face her nemesis, Serena, in the fourth round at Wimbledon. But when you look at the bigger picture, what’s striking isn’t that the old guard hasn't dominated the way we might have predicted, it’s that there’s no new guard there to take their places. Each of the women I’ve mentioned so far made her debut all the way back in the 1990s, with the exception of Sharapova, who isn’t exactly a new face; she won Wimbledon in 2004. 

If you have a plausible overarching explanation for this aging process, you’re one up on me. Clijsters and others say that it’s the physical nature of the WTA now, and the women probably do hit harder then ever. But this has been a long-running trend. When Steffi Graf won her Golden Slam in 1988, we didn’t foresee someone like Monica Seles coming along so soon to knock off her off her pedestal—Graf played the most powerful and intimidating baseline game in the history of women’s tennis up to that point. But there Seles was, just a couple of years later, taking Graf's power and sending it right back—and past—her. When Serena won her Serena Slam in 2003, it looked like she would dominate for years. And, for the most part, she has. While she’s had her lean seasons, no one has come along to knock off her and take over. There hasn’t been a Monica, a new future, this time around.

The other theory I’ve heard recently is that the tour’s age-eligibility rule, which limits the number of tournaments that young players can enter, has held some girls back. This is also possible, but if there’s been a player of Seles’ or Serena's talent and competitive abilities who has been thrown off track by that rule in the last decade, I’m unaware of her.

But, even though I’ve just spent 400 words on it, none of that matters at the moment. There’s no reason to lament the lack of a new Monica Seles, when the four players who are currently in the semis have provided us with as much determined excellence (that would be Serena) and inspired surprise (that would be the other three, the Va's). We like to see the legends go head to head as often as possible, because their matches immediately go into the lore and history of the sport. But one small beauty of the Grand Slams is that, when the stars fade out, the tournaments still go on long enough for you to develop a brief but eye-opening connection with a new player or two. You may never see them again, but each of these players brings something fresh to your appreciation of the sport. This week I’ve liked Pironkova’s energy, court sense, and I’ll-hit-any-shot-it-takes-to-win approach. I’ve liked Kvitova’s athletic attack, even if I can do without her particular brand of fist pumping. And I’ve liked Zvonareva’s level third-set head. She really doesn’t come across at all like a basket case off the court. Deep down inside Vera, maybe there’s a cool competitor just waiting to break out.

Will we see that competitor break out tomorrow in the semis? The head to head isn’t comforting: In their only meeting, on hard courts in Moscow last year, Pironkova routed a hurting Zvonareva 6-0, 6-2. And from a who-is-less-likely-to-melt-down-under-the-pressure-of-a-semifinal-on-Centre-Court point of view, you’d probably go with Pironkova. She showed intelligence and craft in the way she kept Venus on the run, and the ball out of her strike zone, in the quarters. There’s just one minor issue from the Bulgarian’s standpoint: She’s not as good as her opponent. I mean that purely from a ball-striking standpoint, of course, but that’s the one that counts the most. The key for Pironkova will be to avoid a lot of straight-ahead baseline to baseline rallies. The key for Zvonareva will be to keep it together if she doesn't start winning those rallies right away.

Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, 20, of the Czech Republic, have also played just once, with Serena predictably winning 2 and 1, at the Aussie Open this year. Serena obviously played well at that tournament—she won it—but I’d say she’s been even more impressive so far at Wimbledon. She’s played with pretty much total calm and self-assurance—I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile and joke with her opponents as much as she has here. Serena and her sister idolized, and were smart enough to model their serves after, fellow Californian Pete Sampras growing up, and Serena has been more than a little Sampras-like in the way she's gotten through this draw. She’s been challenged, but she’s won with her serve, and she’s won exactly when she’s had to win. There can hardly be a more perfect distillation of the difference between Serena and Sharapova than what happened at 9-9 in their first-set tiebreaker. Sharapova threw in a wild double-fault; Serena took the same ball and fired an ace for the set. Come to think of it, that’s what separates Serena from everyone else these days, and maybe why she’s never been knocked off that pedestal I mentioned earlier.

Does Kvitova have a chance? The first time I saw her play was at the U.S. Open last year, when she upset the No. 1 seed, Dinara Safina. I came out of that match thinking that it really hadn’t been an upset, that the better player and bigger hitter, regardless of her ranking, had won. So, yeah, Kvitova, who can play offense and create openings, and who competes with gusto, has a chance. It may happen to be in hell, rather than at Wimbledon, but she has a chance.

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