The Linchpin

Thursday, August 14, 2014 /by
Despite a down year at the majors, Serena Williams remains the world No. 1. (AP Photo)
Despite a down year at the majors, Serena Williams remains the world No. 1. (AP Photo)

It figures that in this, the summer of Serena Williams’ discontent, she would find the most recent effort to get her fearsome game back on track blocked by an unexpected obstacle—her own sister, Venus. Just when Serena needed inspiration to bust out of her slump, she got another dreaded match-up with her big sister. Ironically, Venus has been enjoying a resurgence that’s been the reverse-image of Serena’s own decline.

Decline? Did someone say decline?

Just the other day, Serena herself mulled over the prospect of winning a Grand Slam in her last chance this year, at the upcoming U.S. Open. She groused: “I'm not even thinking of it anymore. I haven't even been able to get to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam this year. At this point, really I’m just looking forward to next year.”

Most of Williams’ fans might be alarmed by that pronouncement, but I say, watch out. A great champ will resort to almost any measure, no matter how desperate or unseemly, to get one more win, one more major. And he or she will do it instinctively, rather than rationally or out of calculation (which is but one reason she’s a champ and you and I are not). One of those low-down rotten tricks is the act of sandbagging.

But let’s not second-guess Serena here. Her sentiments are understandable; they are also face-saving and ominous. You know what they say in boxing: “If you want to beat the champ, you’d better be prepared to knock him out.” And Serena Williams is more like a great prizefighter than any other player in the game today.

But there’s a caveat to how Serena is handling her current struggle, which is that in just two months’ time she’ll be 33 years old. For all the success some older players have enjoyed, not all of them are built, mentally or physically, for the long haul.

There’s another factor to consider: Each “bad loss” suffered by a once-invincible player emboldens the disgruntled masses, and an Angelique Kerber is likely to look at the work done at Wimbledon by Alize Cornet and ask herself, “Why not me?” This isn’t an insurmountable challenge for a champion, but it sure makes life more difficult—and demands redoubled diligence. One of the cruelties in an individual sport is that when a champ is finished, she is often the last to know.

There’s no reason to panic on behalf of Serena, and lord knows she may yet win two or four or six more major titles. But it is interesting to look at what happens in the event that Serena can’t recapture the magic. For while there’s a lot of talk about the inevitable, ongoing transition taking place on both tours, the two situations are entirely different.

On the ATP side, the days of all-time Grand Slam singles champ and spry 33-year old Roger Federer surely are numbered (despite the current body of evidence). But the three other elites who make up the Big Four are at or near their peaks, and will be for perhaps five years or more. Serena has so dominated the WTA that whoever steps into the breech to take her place will have nothing like the chops or resumes of the top male stars.

Among the men, we’ve already witnessed a changing of the guard—Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are co-alphas, and Andy Murray is not far down the hierarchy. But if Serena were to pack it in tomorrow, the results, in all likelihood, would be nothing less than chaos. It’s hard to even call it a “transition,” because that word implies an orderly change. Here’s why I say that:

—Current WTA No. 2 Simona Halep might develop into a Grand Slam champ; she’s just 22. But it’s difficult to see her dominating. At 5’6”, the game Romanian consistently punches above her weight. That also may help explain how often she’s been injured—not a good sign.

Li Na has fallen to No. 3 because of the knee injury that forced her off the tour. She’s had a fabulous career, given the hurdles she’s faced, but even after she cracked the top tier, she’s retained a deep, curious self-undermining streak. The even bigger problem is one she shares with Serena, her age. Li will be 33 next February.

—Two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova is back up to No. 4, but her track record since her first win at SW19, in 2011, has been highly erratic. Until last month, the young lady who once looked like she might dominate the WTA had lost before the quarterfinals in seven of 11 majors she played since that breakthrough win.

Agnieszka Radwanska is a solid No. 5, but she’s been more or less spinning her wheels since she reached the 2012 Wimbledon final (which she lost to Serena). Judging by her results, the era when a clever, creative, counter-puncher could be the dominant force in the women’s game seems long past.

Maria Sharapova’s ranking (No. 6) kind of says it all. Although she has a career Grand Slam, she’s always been vulnerable to physical breakdown. When her game is on, she can blow anyone off the court, but that game isn’t on nearly enough to convince anyone that the only thing standing between the candy entrepreneur and supremacy in the WTA is her nemesis, Serena. Sharapova remains a brave but frequently vulnerable champion.

—Angelique Kerber has gained back some ground and climbed back to No. 7, but she has yet to play a Grand Slam final.

—The woman most likely to be a bankable champ in the post-Williams era could be No. 8 Eugenie Bouchard. She absorbed a crushing defeat in the Wimbledon final (to Kvitova), and she flopped in her hometown of Montreal as well as Cincinnati. But she’s still the only woman to make three Grand Slam semis (or better) this year. That’s amazing work for a 20-year-old. We can re-evaluate after the U.S. Open, but right now Bouchard still seems like a player who might dominate through the combined offices of her game and her personality.

—That brings us to No. 9 Jelena Jankovic, whose fortunes seems almost emblematic of the moth-to-flame relationship so many players have with success at the highest level these days.

—Another player who once seemed like she might be made of sterner stuff is (current) No. 10 Victoria Azarenka, but she also appears to be failing the reliability test. Azarenka is off the tour again, after a brief and largely unsuccessful comeback from a foot injury. This time, it’s a bad knee. At various points in her career, Azarenka has left the impression that for all her combative zeal, she isn’t in great shape. But that’s a hard call to make with any conviction from the sidelines.

Yet the truth always wins out, and whatever the reasons, Azarenka hasn’t developed into the potential mega-star who won her first major in Melbourne in 2012. Like others in her generation, she doesn’t appear to have the Evert-Graf-Serena gene, the one that enables a player to set the pace, as well as an example, for an entire generation.

While Serena is dominant, the disorder below her seems an acceptable state. But she’s like the linchpin of the WTA tour. Take out that pin, and the wagon could be in for a bumpy ride.

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