Tour de Force

Thursday, January 30, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an astonishing flip-flop that has occurred in pro tennis. It wasn’t so long ago that variety was the hallmark of the men’s game, with a serve-and-volleyer here, an all-court baseliner there, a clay-court grinder somewhere else. Meanwhile, most WTA players looked as if they had been punched out of the same template, doomed to limited success with tiresome, conservative games, identical two-handed backhands, and near-universally shared serving woes.

My, how different it is now—a point that was vividly illustrated once again at the Australian Open. But before we get into that, I’ll add that this florescence of variety might also be rubbing off on the men’s game, especially with the “wise men”—Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, and Goran Ivanisevic—now helping to determine the tone of the game as coaches. It seems that “volley” is no longer a forbidden word in the game’s vocabulary, but we’ll leave that topic for another time.

Right now, there’s really only one great WTA player whose game can be described as one-dimensional in the same way that so many women players were one-dimensional two or three decades ago, and that’s Victoria Azarenka. Against quality opposition, her serve will always be vulnerable. Against most everyone else, and often those elites, her straight-on power and consistency will usually do the job. 

That isn’t meant as a slight; a “one-dimensional” win is worth just as many rankings points and dollars as a multi-faceted one, and one-speed tennis can have plenty of appeal when it’s matched with a game that can turn the power of that game against itself—as Agniezska Radwanska demonstrated in her dazzling quarterfinal win over Azarenka.

The other quarterfinalists this year constituted a grab-bag of styles and playing sensibilities so diverse that they’re worth noting. Simona Halep continued to build on her outstanding 2013 season. At 5’6”, she’s on the small side in today’s game, but she’s a fierce ball-striker and blasted her way to the quarters, where she was out-hit by an even smaller dynamo, losing finalist Dominika Cibulkova, who tops out at all of 5’3”.

Two things were interesting about how that all played out: First, that two women of such small stature would bring such big games to the dance and, second, that neither of them looked anything like a “surprise” quarterfinalist. Back in the day, there were women cut from similar cloth as these two; tennis throughout the years has pretty successfully resisted the tempting theory that being big is an advantage. But they played with nothing like the command and conviction of these women, and usually left the quarters or semis at the wrong end of a love-and-two scoreline.

Halep punched her ticket into the quarters with an impressive win over the bigger, more mobile, and more versatile Jelena Jankovic, who had lost just 14 games and zero sets up to that point. On her way to the final, Cibulkova advanced at the expense of two Top 5 players who couldn’t be more different from her, or from each other—Maria Sharapova and Radwanska. If Cibulkova was a “surprise” finalist, it was in name only.

By the semis, No. 2 Azarenka, No. 13 Sloane Stephens, No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 3 Sharapova, and No. 6 Jankovic had all been eliminated from the lower portion of the draw. Things weren’t much better in the top half, where the casualties included No. 1 Serena Williams, No. 7 Sara Errani, No. 9 Angelique Kerber, and No. 6 Petra Kvitova. And while all the top half’s quarterfinalists were seeded, only one was actually seeded to reach that stage—the eventual champ, No. 4 Li Na. 

That Ana Ivanovic managed to beat Serena was the big news in the top half, but the kicker is that the former Grand Slam champion was unable to advance further. She lost to the breakout WTA player of the tournament, No. 30 seed Eugenie Bouchard

We’ve written a lot about Bouchard here in recent days; what is interesting about Ivanovic, though, is that she seems to have become something of a litmus test, not a familiar role for a former No. 1 still in the meat of her career. Ivanovic provides a good measure of just how far the game has come and how much it has changed in recent years. 

It’s possible that the 2008 French Open champion isn’t the player she was six years ago, but it’s more likely that she is. After all, she’s still just 26, and is as scrupulous and diligent a worker as the WTA has. Sure, she lost a little confidence when she was unable to keep her place at the top. But she hasn’t lost a step, or an ounce of power. It’s just that everyone else got better. The game has evolved and to some modest but (to her) frustrating degree passed her by. 

Incidentally, the same can be said for her fellow Serb, Jankovic. Back in 2007, it looked as if these two might be the future of the WTA in the same way that another Serb—Novak Djokovic—was tabbed by some as the new messiah of the men’s game. That it worked out better for Djokovic than for Ana and Jelena isn’t just a comment on the Nole’s prowess, it also suggests the degree-of-difficulty the Serbian women faced on their tour.

Flavia Pennetta, the No. 28 seed, also made the quarters in Oz, rounding out what amounts to as diverse and dangerous a set of female quarterfinalists as any Grand Slam has ever produced. Just contemplate the variety of styles in this group—even without the presence of that unique and dominant champ, Serena Williams.

In the end, Li Na won won it all, and is a fitting champion in more ways than one. Her own game is a testament to versatility and variety. Granted, she doesn’t serve-and-volley very much, just more than ever before. More important, she’s a risk-taker and a shot-maker who constantly takes the game to her opponents, doing so with clean, relatively flat shots that exploit all the angles.  

Serena remains the most potent symbol of this “new” women’s game, but Li did a wonderful job of her own last week in Melbourne. And that she wasn’t the only woman to wow fans only made her triumph, and that of the WTA, that much more impressive.

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