Following this year’s epic six-hour Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the view that this era of men’s tennis is the greatest of all time continues to grow in strength. Djokovic’s mammoth win over 10-time Grand Slam winner Nadal brought the Serb’s own tally up to five and it looks only a matter of time before he joins his Spanish counterpart and 16-time major winner Roger Federer amongst the higher echelons of legendary names. But while Djokovic was battling to a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 victory on Rod Laver Arena, 24 hours earlier the women’s final ended in a somewhat anti-climactic straight sets triumph for Victoria Azarenka. The Belarusian’s 6-3, 6-0 win over Maria Sharapova meant she became the fourth consecutive maiden Grand Slam winner after Sam Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Li Na. All three won their finals in straight sets also. With so many players capable of winning a major title, how does this era of tennis compare to that of the male equivalent?
Well, currently the women’s game is in transition. The Williams sisters’ era is coming to an end and the likes of Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters have quit or are heading in that direction. Since the retirement of Henin and the various injuries the Williams sisters have had, the standard of tennis has also dropped. No one epitomizes the gulf in class more than Clijsters herself. Before her first retirement in 2007, the Belgian only had one major title to her name. Now she has another three, which could have been more had injury not stopped her playing much of 2011. There have also been several world number one players with no Grand Slam titles including Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina; something that’s been heavily criticized.
Azarenka believes the competitive nature of the women’s game at present is a positive thing but many believe it’s suffering from the lack of a dominant figure. Kvitova and Azarenka may be recent debut winners but with both in their early 20’s they could be about to pull the WTA circuit out of the doldrums. The pair have the potential to form an intense rivalry that’s not been seen since Steffi Graf and Monica Seles blitzed the early 1990’s. It’s left-hander versus right, Central Europe versus Eastern, forehand versus backhand, silence versus grunting. A year older than Kvitova, Azarenka has improved her game and steadily risen up the rankings while her 21-year-old Czech rival shot to fame by winning the sport’s most prestigious event – Wimbledon – as a dark horse. Kvitova has yet to fully master the mental side of the game that the once hot-headed Azarenka has so drastically turned around but she hits the ball harder and has the bigger weapons. Azarenka will always be looking to improve though and with both capable of winning titles on all surfaces, down the line they could produce some classic matches.
Rivalry seems to be the missing link in the quest to answer the question “What’s wrong with women’s tennis?” When you analyze the years gone by they contained various high-profile and high-quality clashes from Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert to Venus against Serena. Currently, the top 10 is full of older players that have spent much of their careers on the fringes of the elite, such as Vera Zvonareva and Marion Bartoli. Thus, there are few clashes that people have a connection with and look forward to. However, during the last Australian Open, the foundations for the future of women’s tennis were laid down. The quarterfinal line-up consisted of the world’s top four players while the semi-finals contained three of those four. With Sharapova the oldest of these at 24, they look set to be in the top five for many years. The last spot is open for the likes of Agnieszka Radwanksa or Sabine Lisicki to fill as they improve year by year. Azarenka’s victory has also propelled her to the top of the rankings, ending the nagging question mark over the legitimacy of the number one spot. She’s now started to pull away at the top and there is a great buzz over what she could achieve in 2012 including eerie similarities to the dominant Djokovic of 2011.
This year is a big one for tennis. The four Grand Slams have been joined by the Olympic Games as the most coveted prizes in the sport. Many players are expected to retire following London’s second Wimbledon so expect there to be a brand new dawn this time next year that could give the men a run for their money.