On Monday I claimed that while there wouldn't be any drama over the year-end No. 1 ranking this week in Istanbul, the competition itself would be worth watching. As of Thursday morning, things hadn’t worked out that way. None of the six matches played had gone three sets, and the only thing remotely surprising was Jelena Jankovic’s mild upset of a bummed out and possibly burned out Victoria Azarenka.
But that doesn’t mean there’s been nothing to see, and think about, at the WTA Championships so far. If nothing else, the event gives us a close-up view of the game’s best players, with no distractions. Here are a few notes from the tournament’s first half:
Can you imagine what it would be like if Agnieszka Radwanska grunted the way Sara Errani does when she hit the ball? Try to picture it. Would you think of Aga the same way? Would she still be considered a cool, crafty player, the WTA’s resident ninja, if she made noise with every swing?
I thought of that question while watching Sara Errani’s first two matches this week. The Italian, while she lost both times, showed off her often-unnoticed variety, which she has developed as a Top 10 singles and No. 1 doubles player. Errani hit high-bouncing topspin, low-skimming slice, well-carved drops, and squash-shot forehands in defense. She came to the net when she could and used her good hands when she got there. She won multiple points with that seemingly extinct weapon, the topspin lob. Errani did whatever it took to keep herself in the matches. None of her tactics worked in the end, but she still played with the type of thoughtful versatility that so many people believe is no longer part of the sport.
Yet when we think of variety, thoughtfulness, and touch on the women’s tour, we don’t typically think of Errani. We think of Radwanska. I have to believe this is due at least in part to the fact that Errani grunts and Radwanska doesn’t. Errani sounds like a baseline grinder when she plays, intense to the point of desperation. Radwanska, by contrast, sounds like she’s making no physical effort at all to create her angles and hit her drops and lobs. The effort all seems to be in her head. Hence her vaunted cunning and craft.
Errani is not Radwanska; she doesn't have the same kind of homemade magic (Aga herself was out of it this week). But Errani can be a surprisingly fun player to watch. Not only does she have variety, she never gives up, and her reactions can be entertaining in the way they reveal her competitiveness. Errani never seems to quite believe that a close shot by her opponent has actually landed in. On Tuesday, she even shook her head at a Hawk-Eye replay that went against her—she didn’t want to admit the machine was right, either. But she also has a great smile when she chooses to flash it. Grunting may be here to stay, but if there’s one noise-maker on either tour I’d like to hear play silently, it would be Errani. There’s a lot to see when you don’t have to listen.
On Low Boil
Victoria Azarenka claims she’s having trouble getting motivated right now. It’s been a long year, she says, and she’s had to recover from two separate leg injuries that put her on the sidelines. It's not a new situation for her. Vika has a history of blazing starts and fizzling ends to her seasons.
Azarenka may not feel good about her game right now, but is it really because of burnout or injury? She was off from early March to early May, she responded well after her fall at Wimbledon during the U.S. summer hard-court season, and she only played two matches between the U.S. Open and Istanbul—what she may lack more than anything else right now is momentum. Yesterday, though, when Vika fell behind to Jelena Jankovic, it looked like she didn’t want to compete. No one can say that Azarenka isn’t a fighter; she has made a habit of battling her way past slow starts. But last year, in her loss to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals here, Vika had a similar negative reaction to the one she had against Jankovic yesterday. Her frustration and annoyance at falling behind to someone she believed she should beat got the best of her.
Whatever the reason for her current slump, the larger point is that the WTA needs Vika. For the last two years, the tour has thrived because of the ascendance of Sharapova, Azarenka, and Serena Williams. With the exception of Marion Bartoli’s Wimblegeddon title this summer, the women’s Big 3 won every major in 2012 and 2013. But Sharapova, who has had shoulder and coaching issues, has been a non-factor since she lost the French Open final. And while Li Na, Radwanska, and Petra Kvitova are fine players, none has emerged as a consistent challenger at the majors—only three of the eight women in Istanbul have a winning record against Top 10 opponents. That leaves Vika as the last barricade between Serena and...herself.
For years, the WTA lacked a clear-cut No. 1 player. As of this moment, it feels like the tour is all about its No. 1. Here’s hoping Vika and Maria, and anyone else who wants to give it a try, can do something about that in 2014.
OK, so Istanbul hasn’t caught fire yet, but there has been one bright spot: the return of Jelena Jankovic to the year-end championships for the first time since 2010. JJ, unlike Vika, seems quite happy to be there, and she’s playing like it. At 28, four years past her own turn at No. 1, she has been rejuvenated, and it’s a pleasure to see her game in full flight again. Literally—Jankovic still plays with a lightness of foot and body. On Wednesday she gave us the tournament's first upset; on Thursday, she gave us its first fully compelling match, in a three-set loss to Li.
The press loves JJ because she’ll say pretty much anything, which makes her a breath of fresh air off court as well as on. I like her press conferences and her personality as well, but at a certain point I started to think she was almost too quotable—her funny comments never ended, which made them less interesting over time. This isn’t a criticism of Jankovic; it’s what happens when a player has to do a press conference after single match she plays. I’ll always respect the fact that, win or lose, she answers the questions as honestly as she can. JJ seems to enjoy everything that comes with being a professional tennis player.
That shows on court as well. Jankovic may moan, she may argue, she may complain, but she also smiles. While she plays a pretty standard baseline game, she never makes it look turgid. JJ leaps for her forehand, tracks down virtually everything on defense, and mixes up rallies with her trademark down the line redirections—she pulls her opponents out of position by going down the line the same way that other players do it by going cross-court. Jankovic may not run quite as fast or jump quite as high at 28 as she did at 22, but she still brings an athlete’s sense of freedom to the sport. That never gets old.