WTA has become a tour with plenty of stars, but almost no champions

by: Peter Bodo February 25, 2016

The tour seems to have bred a culture of lowered expectations. (AP)

Angelique Kerber played her first official WTA match as a Grand Slam champion in Doha earlier this week, and a fan expecting a spectacular show could be forgiven for asking for her money back.

Kerber, the top seed, lost to Zheng Saisai of China—a woman ranked 71 spots below her, at No. 73—in under an hour-and-a-half, 7-5, 6-1. You knew it wasn't too competitive when the winner prefaced her post-match comments with, “For sure it wasn’t (Kerber’s) best tennis today, but. . .”

And so it goes.

In fairness to Kerber, winning a major—especially at such a late stage in the 28-year-old's career—can really knock a player for a loop. She may yet settle nicely into her new role as an elite star when the big combined hard-court events roll around. But the way things have been going in the WTA, it could just as easily go the other way.

Should Kerber find it difficult to consolidate her newfound status, she would only be demonstrating that she’s part of the gestalt. The WTA seems to have become a tour with plenty of stars, but almost no champions. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are the only two women who have the game and the temperament to compete week-in, week-out, as if their lives depended on it. The headlines coming out of the tour these days tell it all:

Dubai enters record books as all eight seeds fall . . . Ostapenko sends Kvitova crashing out . . .  Top seed Victoria Azarenka withdraws from Mexico Open . . .  

The WTA is in a state of chaos, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. For one thing, it creates those sensational headlines. It also generates new storylines. It also makes it easier for players to break through, to soak up their proverbial 15 minutes of fame. The anarchy also makes us appreciate even more fully the consistent excellence of Serena and those other precious few players who compete and go deep in draws on a regular basis.

This has been the state of affairs in the WTA for some time now, and it has given rise to some interesting theories. One of them is that, with the competition so stiff, only a superstar like Serena could ever dominate again. Another is that the grind of daily tour play and life is so demanding that nobody can be expected to play her A game on a regular basis.

Prodigies? Not anymore, the conventional wisdom goes. The veterans are all too tough, too fit, too experienced, too strong to fall prey to gifted 16- or 17-year olds.

Are these really viable explanations for what is going on, or convenient rationalizations justifying the WTA’s inability to produce a champion class of players? The injury and fitness issues, while understandable at the end of any given season, are simply mystifying. It’s unfathomable that so many players could be in such poor condition at the start of the new year, after a two-month break.

More and more, the pros are more than willing to withdraw from tournaments in order to enhance their chances in upcoming, more significant events. That's an ethical issue; the tour operates on trust, with the players expected to honor their commitments. But the players can now play fewer tournaments and still make plenty of money, so they may be more inclined to play it safe and save themselves for big occasions.

That approach creates as many problems as it solves. Nothing begets winning like winning, which is something many players appear to have forgotten. Instead of seeing winning as a way of life, they see it as a singular, perhaps fleetingly attainable goal. They tend to see the big win as the end rather than the beginning of something. As entitled as players sometimes seem, they don’t necessarily believe they are entitled to a steady diet of Ws.

In that regard, the tour seems to have bred a culture of lowered expectations.

Take the case of Garbine Muguruza.

The 22-year-old had everything you could wish for in a breakout star in 2014, the year she upset Serena at Roland Garros and reached the quarterfinals (where she lost to Sharapova). Surrounded by the aura of prodigy, Muguruza also had the physical size, strength, and shot-making punch of a veteran.

A year later at Wimbledon, with an additional 12 months of seasoning, she made her first major final (losing to Serena). It looked like Muguruza was ready to break out. She had a tough U.S. Open, but then put together a good two-week run in Asia, making two finals and winning one (Beijing).

But that was it. Muguruza faltered at the WTA Finals and hasn’t won anything since; coming into this week of play, she was just 4-3 in 2016.

In the big picture Muguruza is doing very well. She’s a Top 5 player with great charisma and marketing potential. But does anyone really believe that she hasn’t won a major because the veterans are too tough, or too experienced?

Belinda Bencic, who’s still just 18, is roughly where Muguruza was at the start of 2014. It will be interesting to see how she develops.

Some players simply fly too close to the flame of greatness and realize it’s uncomfortable there. Simona Halep became everyone’s darling when she made the 2014 French Open final—she lost to Sharapova—but she now seems like a latter-day version of Vera Zvonareva. Halep has had injury issues, but more to the point, she has yet to overcome the problem of struggling to play her best on big occasions, now that expectations have risen.

Other gifted players—Sloane Stephens comes to mind—seem unsure of what they really want out of tennis beyond a measure of fame and fortune that is more easily attained (and more easily lost) than ever before.

These aren’t all problems spawned in this era. They’re intrinsic to the game, and that’s one reason tennis is fascinating. In the past, you could always count on the existence of ambitious players who happily shattered expectations and acted as if all things were possible. They broke through, they shaped the game.

The question in the WTA for the past few years has been, “Who’s going to be the next Serena?”

Today, it almost seems to have turned into, “Does anyone really want to be the next Serena?”

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