Monthly Archives: October 2012

A new rivalry in the women’s game?

The best eight players in the world

 

The WTA season ends in Istanbul this week as the top 8 players in the world gather for the End-of-season Championships. That there are few of the girls involved with a realistic shot at winning should come as no surprise. It has not been a vintage year at the top of the women’s game. Serena Williams returned to the peak, not in ranking but certainly in game. She is among the realistic contenders this week. Viktoria Azarenka is the other serious one, whilst I give an outside chance to Angelique Kerber if she can oust either of them from the toughest of the two round-robin groups.

The final between Vika and Serena in New York was the stand-out highlight of a pretty poor showing this year. It has the potential to be a great rivalry if Vika has the stomach to take on the Queen Bee of the WTA Tour. The evidence is there that she has more than enough tooth to take the fight right to Serena. She stood toe-to-toe with the veteran at Flushing Meadows, trading killer forehands for 3 brilliant three sets of tennis. You go either two ways from the crushing defeat when she failed to serve out for the Championship; you crumble away and slide down the rankings or you get right back on it and set about proving you are the rightful number one in the women’s game. The signs are there that the Belarusian has chosen the latter of these two options, having already won a tournament since the final major of the season.  A couple of victories over Serena this week would mean that she could hold rightful claims to being the best player in the world.

Serena will of course have other ideas – she knows that a victory here would do nothing but rubberstamp her fantastic summer. She has dominated the field since her shock 1st round defeat at Roland Garros, her first ever defeat at the opening hurdle in a Grand Slam. Virginie Razzano’s victory over her should have been a highlight of any tennis year, but the horrible cold facts are that Serena was woeful that day and the at-times cruel Parisian crowd got to her. Serena has more Grand Slam victories in her sights – Steffi Graf’s 22 may be out of reach, but Williams will believe she can collect three more to match Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.  It would be silly to suggest this is motivating Serena at this stage in her career and I am shocked that so many experts are stating it as fact.  The truth is Serena has never needed records or titles to motivate her.  She is motivated by winning every single match she competes in – it’s as simple as that.  It’s what sets apart the best champions from the rest.

There is no need to go over the list of players who have been at the top of the women’s game in the last 10 years who did not possess this motivation and killer instinct. Millions of column inches have been written discrediting their achievements and games, which serves to do nothing but sully those girl’s commendable careers. But we all know the ones who do possess it. Serena possesses it, Sharapova possesses it, Justine Henin had it and the legends mentioned in the previous paragraph personified it. It is my belief that Victoria Azarenka has that in abundance. Her potential took longer to come to fruition than her fans thought it would. Indeed, there was a time a couple of years ago when it appeared she just was not going to crack it and massive potential was to go unfulfilled. But Vika has fought her way to the very top of the rankings and has a Grand Slam title in the bag after her vicious no-mercy demolishing of Sharapova in Melbourne nine months ago. She has the game and the nerve to go on and battle it out with Serena and even to stop Serena from getting level with her fellow Americans Navratilova and Evert. She is the one player who means that the chance to draw level with them does not simply lie only on Serena’s racket.

I would be surprised if anybody other than these two girls was to lift the trophy at the end of the week. Like I say, Kerber has an outside shot if she puts her game together and Vika or Serena drop the ball. It would be more than surprise, it would be amazement, if the winner was to come from the other group.  Radwanska could win it another year if people come in off-form or unfit but cannot match the dominant Williams or Azarenka. Sara Errani will be happy to just be there and is the whipping girl, I’m afraid. Kudos to her for backing up her Roland Garros final appearance with enough ranking points to qualify though. Petra Kvitova has flattered to deceive this year and will struggle to get out of the group, whilst Sharapova is a guaranteed semi-final shot, but will come up short against either Serena or Vika in the semi-final stage.  I have to confess that I was actually dumbfounded that Na Li had done enough to make the tournament – clearly I am not following the women’s game as closely as I should do. Her best days are behind her it would seem.

My idea of a successful tournament needs only a few things. I would like the semi -finals and finals to be watched by a full stadium. If not, something really needs to be done to look at an alternative venue. London would sell this thing out and ensure full houses for every single match. Another thing is at least one of the semi-finals going the distance, and the final being a showcase for great tennis.  The final thing will be for all eight girls which start the tournament to be the eight who finish it. I do not like the idea of alternates and there have been far too many retirements and withdrawals in recent years.  Not too much to ask, is it?!

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The sad case of Nicolas Mahut

 

Nicolas Mahut’s name will forever be immortalised in tennis folklore thanks to his three-day marathon match with John Isner in 2010.  Whilst his conqueror has gone on to establish himself as a Top 10 player, what of the genial Frenchman who reluctantly posed for photographs with the tall American next to his losing scoreboard when it was the last thing that he will have wanted to do?

27 months on from the defining moment in his journeyman career, this week he was playing in an ATP Challenger tournament in Mons, southern Belgium.  His second-round match with his compatriot Kenny de Schepper attracted a crowd of less than 100 people, this despite the tournament organisers offering free tickets to those who reserved their places in advance.  Far away from the Grand Slam atmospheres, this is the crushing reality for the majority of tennis professionals.  Hit a fantastic running backhand pass? You’re lucky to get a handful of people applauding.  A serve that is long? The call from the line judges reverberates around the building.  A succession of horrible line calls? You bet.

Mahut’s serve-volley game is still there, but so is the inconsistency.  This latter component is what has resulted in him regularly appearing on the Challenger Tour.  It is no surprise that the majority of the competitors this week come from Belgium and France.  The prize money from playing here is minimal; if you were to offset it with accommodation and then travel costs, you can see that the life of a tennis pro outside of the Top 60 is not all the biscuits and gravy that it is made out to be.  It also begs the following question; how are tennis tournaments at this level sustainable?  If you offer free tickets and still can’t attract customers so that they spend money in the building, how do you raise the revenue to offset player prize money, other than sponsorship? What is in it for the sponsors at this level?

How demoralising it must be for these players to look up and see rows and rows of empty seats as tournament organisers continue to overestimate people’s interest in the sport.  For the record, it wasn’t until the second game of the second set that either player faced a break point.  The paucity of such opportunities is unfortunately where the comparison with the Isner-Mahut match ends.  This is the level that Mahut’s career was at before that match and this is where it continues to be.  It’s a sad fact that the highlight of his career will be a 1st round Grand Slam loss, but the right man won that record-breaking contest; Isner has used it as a springboard to regular appearances in the second weeks of Grand Slams.  For Mahut, he must continue to forge on with the Challenger tour to protect his ranking of 68.

What can tennis do to attract people to events?  It’s a clear problem, but I don’t know how to resolve it.  Far better qualified people are clearly failing to find a solution.  There are plenty of empty seats at most ATP Tour events and even the early rounds of Masters Series and Grand Slam events, if you discount the matches of Federer and Nadal.  Two stars do not a sport make.  If you struggle to attract people to Masters events, you have no chance at Challenger level.  Free tickets is an excellent idea but clearly one which does not guarantee good crowds.  The very nature of tennis means that it has to be played during the week, which prevents most of the workforce from attending – you would have to be incredibly dedicated or downright crazy to pull a sickie to watch Evgeny Donskoy play Jerziy Janowicz.  I hate to imagine what awaits the ladies who play at the equivalent level.  Suffice to say, I am sure their entourages outnumber the spectators.

The prize money has to remain competitive because even now there are countless players struggling to make a living.  Is it necessary to cut the calendar? To have less tournaments, but with greater prize money? To regionalise the Challenger and Futures calendars so that the players’ rankings are not threatened if they don’t try to tackle tournaments in far-flung areas of the globe?  I am throwing ideas out there – I am sure the sport’s governing bodies have their own thoughts.  These ideas would probably help the players, but would they improve attendance? Probably not but heck, it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?

For now, Nicolas Mahut must continue to motivate himself to play in front of empty seats.  A far cry from the packed rafters of Wimbledon’s Court 18, the Frenchman’s run came to a grumbling halt here.  Never happy with the quality of the surface, he stumbled to a 6-7 3-6 defeat in less than 85 minutes.  Maybe more people will attend the semis and the final, but at 15Euros a ticket at the weekend, I won’t hold my breath.  One thing is for sure – the most famous loser of a first round Grand Slam match in the history of the sport will not be around to see it. Onto the next Challenger event for him as John Isner attempts to close in on a debut appearance at the ATP World Finals.  Those three days in South-West London in the summer of 2010 could not have been more seminal in either man’s career.

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