“Is that exciting, or is that dispiriting?”
This was the question posed to Lindsay Davenport by her fellow Tennis Channel commentator, Steve Weissman, during a broadcast of the WTA event in Dubai on Thursday. The subject was a familiar one to tennis fans, and especially to fans of the women’s game in recent years: Was the avalanche of upsets that we’ve seen in Dubai this week—all eight seeds lost their opening match—a good thing or a bad thing? Was it a sign of weakness at the top, or depth and toughness among the lower tiers?
Like most people who try to answer this question, Davenport hedged.
Is it possible for anyone to come up with a definitive response? Whether parity—“chaos,” as some would have it—signals strength or weakness in a tour is one of tennis’s chicken-or-egg questions. In reality, the answer is the chicken and the egg: Every upset signals the strength of the lower-ranked winner and the vulnerability of the higher-ranked loser on that day.
Still, you don’t see eight seeds go 0-8 too often. What went on in Dubai this week? We should start by noting that there were extenuating circumstances. The world’s Top 2 players, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, pulled out. Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, two former No. 1s and multiple Slam champs, weren’t in the draw. And neither was Agnieszka Radwanska, one of the WTA’s hottest players.
In their place was a shakier lineup of seeds: No. 1 and 2, Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza, both started the year with awful early-round losses at the Australian Open. No. 3 Carla Suarez Navarro is a clay-court specialist. You never know what you’re going to get from No. 4 Petra Kvitova or No. 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova. No. 5, Roberta Vinci, and No. 7, Belinda Bencic, had just played a final against each other in St. Petersburg two days earlier.
Dubai’s 26-player draw also didn’t offer many places to hide; while the event isn’t mandatory, it does come with an enticing $2,000,000 purse. In her opener, Halep had to face former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Bencic lost to Jelena Jankovic, another former No. 1. Muguruza lost to 21st-ranked Elina Svitolina, who came to the event with a new coach, Justine Henin. And the No. 6 seed, Karolina Pliskova, went out to CoCo Vandeweghe, the woman who beat her at Wimbledon last year.
In other words, the carnage in Dubai isn’t quite as stunning as it first seems. And the fact that quality players like Ivanovic, Jankovic, Svitolina, Andrea Petkovic, Barbora Strycova, Kiki Mladenovic, Sara Errani, Caroline Garcia, Julia Georges, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, and Ekaterina Makarova were all floating unseeded does show that there’s a well of talent that extends far beyond the WTA’s Top 15. It’s not a surprise to see any of them beat a Top 10 opponent.
But while all of these players can pull off an upset, all of them can have an upset pulled on them just as quickly. Ivanovic, Jankovic, and Goerges knocked off seeds, and then were defeated 24 hours later. Petkovic won two matches, then lost to a player—Garcia—ranked 10 spots below her. The top tier is preyed upon by the second tier, which is then preyed upon by the third tier. What we’re left with are more unanswerable questions: Is the constant churn created by parity more interesting than the sense of order that a strong group of top players brings? Why aren’t obviously gifted players like Pliskova, Garcia, Mladenovic, and Petkovic more consistent from week to week? Is talent the same as depth?
A final pitting No. 22 Errani vs. No. 47 Strycova is probably not what Dubai tournament officials had in mind—the last four champions have been Radwanska, Kvitova, Venus Williams, and Halep. But fans who follow the game closely, and who don’t need to see the stars every week, may have a different opinion. Where some see chaos, we see an opportunity to watch lesser-known favorites get a shot at a title. To me, Strycova, with her mix of melodrama and resourcefulness, is an underrated entertainer; maybe she can build on this run. If you’re interested enough, there’s always a storyline to follow.
On balance, I find upsets exciting, and I like a tour where rank-and-file players aren’t scared to challenge the elite. But I also like to see an elite. The two losses in Dubai that were dispiriting were those of Halep and Muguruza. In 2015, Halep appeared to be the woman who was going to battle Serena at the top; in 2016, it was going to be Muguruza. Both have started this season looking lost.
Right now the WTA has a strong No. 1 player, and as much talent through its Top 40 as it has ever had. But without Sharapova and Azarenka pushing Serena, it doesn’t have a ruling coterie of players. Surprises are good, but you don’t want a situation where, if Serena isn’t in a tournament, that tournament turns into a seemingly random series of events.
The good thing with tennis is that there’s always another day and another tournament. As I’ve been writing this, the draw for next week’s tournament in Doha has been announced. Kerber and Radwanska are back, Halep and Muguruza will give it another shot, and Bencic will hopefully be rested. I have to say, I’m excited to see what happens.