Talent in Turmoil

Thursday, April 03, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Serena Williams laid down the law once again in Miami a few days ago, but her loss the other evening in Charleston must leave many observers wondering just how much longer the 32-year-old, 17-time Grand Slam champion can continue to impose some sort of order on the WTA tour.

Now, this isn’t the same as saying that Williams is in decline, or that she won’t win another half-dozen majors, nor any of the other things defensive fans of Serena might read into that first paragraph. I introduced the issue partly because of what Williams herself said after her unexpected loss to Jana Cepelova: “I'm really just dead. I need some weeks off where I don't think about tennis and kind of regroup. I've had a long couple of years, and I'm really a little fatigued.”

That’s an interesting (and, to many, almost alarming) declaration from a woman who’s played just 18 matches in four tournaments three full months into the year, and a player who had close to a full month off before the start of the Miami tournament that she won again on Sunday. As volatile as the WTA game the game has become, the absence of Williams—should she decide to cut back on her pre-Roland Garros schedule—could unleash chaos.

For weeks now, I’ve been working with the theme that we may be in the midst of a transition, at least below the Top 5 level, on the ATP tour. But things seem, if anything, even more unpredictable in the WTA, not least because there’s really only one bankable player on hand: Serena Williams.

At Indian Wells about three weeks ago, not a single quarterfinalist from 2013 returned to that round (Serena skipped the event, as she always does, both of those years). That’s pretty amazing. Last week in Miami, the pecking order was somewhat stabilized, as four of last year’s quarterfinalists repeated their performance. Of course, Williams played—and won—in both 2013 and this year, which was a big boost for the status quo. But just three quarterfinalists from Indian Wells made the same round in Miami: Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Dominika Cibulkova.

Six of the top eight seeds in Miami made the quarters (the two women who surpassed official expectations were No. 10 seed Cibulkova and No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki), which suggests a measure of stability. But there are interesting caveats or question marks that can be attached to every last one of them.

Serena’s credentials are impeccable, but there is that age and fatigue issue. Going by her own testimony, you have to wonder how she’ll handle the end of spring and summer.

The No. 2 seed in Miami was Li. She’s the same age as Williams, but she’s never been nearly the same, reliable competitor. Would anyone really be shocked if she suddenly went through one of her periodic dark periods and couldn’t sustain her pace?

Radwanska was seeded No. 3 in Miami, a tournament she won in 2012 with an impressive win over then-No. 2 Maria Sharapova. But she’s had a hard time punching through the last wall (see her recent results at Wimbledon), and seems lately to be spinning her wheels. Losses this year to Cibulkova at the Australian Open and to Flavia Pennetta in the Indian Wells final are disappointing, and add credence to those who doubt her potential as a Grand Slam champ.

Sharapova was the No. 4 seed in Miami, and while she made her seed (she lost in the semis to Serena), her ranking tumbled all the way down to No. 9. She struggled for much or March, and seems to be forcing her game and fighting herself. Things are apt to get more complicated for her now that she can’t count on being seeded to make the quarterfinals, but when Serena is out of action, Sharapova will move up among the top eight seeds—a welcome break during the time of year when Sharapova lately has done well.

Angelique Kerber was seeded No. 5 in Miami, and she survived to the quarterfinals. Like Radwanska, she’s been having trouble punching through to the most elite level, even though her game is more explosive. Kerber took back-to-back first-round losses at Dubai and Indian Wells, indicators that the consistency that vaulted her into the top five in October of 2012 may have abandoned her. In the big picture, she’s looked—and played—as if she’s in over her head in the late stages of big events.

The No. 8 seed in Miami was Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion. Unlike Kerber and Radwanska, she has won the big one, but she’s been less consistent than either of them. More than two full years after her breakthrough in London, the evidence suggests that while she’ll always be more dangerous and more capable of demolishing opponents than anyone save Williams and Sharapova, it’s a crap shoot whenever she walks on the court.

No. 11 Wozniacki exceeded her seed in Miami, but we’ve been down this path with her before. She’s needed a good tournament since falling out of the Top 10, but the two-time year-end No. 1 has a long way to go before she’ll convince anyone that she can win a major. At times, it seems like she’s content to be a big name without a huge win.

Cibulkova, the newest member of the WTA Top 10, joined Wozniacki in crashing the quarterfinals. Given the turmoil near the top, her consistency and stick-to-itiveness have been outstanding, and has been a welcome relief from the recent diet.

Of course, the Australian Open finalist is only now going through what Wozniacki, Radwanska, and Kerber have experienced in the heady days leading up to their status moments. But Cibulkova somehow seems made from sterner stuff than some of her fellow contenders. Her small size will always be a liability, perhaps even a significant one when it comes to her Grand Slam ambitions. But she seems curiously impervious to intimidation, and tends to go about her business in the same way no matter who she’s facing.

As for the rest of the field, it’s fairly loaded with former Grand Slam champs like Venus Williams, Ana Ivanovic, and Sam Stosur, as well as major finalists like Sabine Lisicki and Jelena Jankovic. Pennetta seems to be having her Francesca Schiavone moment, and players like Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Eugenie Bouchard, and Donna Vekic (among others) are coming on strong.

Nineteen-year old Svitolina has established herself, at No. 35, as the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA rankings. Bouchard is just out of her teens and ranked considerably higher at No. 20, but Svitolina beat her in the second round at Miami.

As if to re-affirm her intent to be the new WTA ingenue, Svitolina took out Sloane Stephens in Charleston on Wednesday. Together with Serena’s loss, it was painful one-two blow for U.S. tennis fans. And it couldn’t have been much fun for Stephens, either—especially in light of the terrible match she played against Wozniacki at Miami (Stephens got a single game in the entire match).

I suppose Americans can console themselves with the fact that Venus Williams, having won two matches, is still in the hunt at Charleston. Leave it to Venus, now ranked No. 28, to put all this in perspective, as she did the other day:

"My gosh, if you are careful and you don't play almost perfectly, every single player is so talented out here that you can drop a set or the match. So it's stay focused, really believe in yourself and take some chances and make your shots."

All that is easier said than done, especially that part about “believe in yourself”—as so many of the talents in turmoil can attest.

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