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What women's tennis needs

September 06, 2016 12:25 IST

Dhruv Munjal insists that women's tennis needs a golden generation, one that can make matches competitive and viewing more riveting.

Serena Williams

IMAGE: Serena Williams celebrates winning the singles title at Wimbledon. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Roland Garros, 2009. Steffi Graf sat in the stands grim faced, not even mildly impressed. In front of her, World No 1 Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova were doing battle for the French Open title.

As the cameras intermittently panned on Graf, she camouflaged her displeasure with that amiable, incandescent smile. An hour-and-a-half of exasperating play later, Kuznetsova beat her compatriot to win a second Grand Slam title. Graf later confessed that she found watching the match cumbersome, and the quality of tennis did not quite appeal to her.

Serena Williams -- all on her own -- has even kept some of the naysayers enthralled. But that cannot go on forever.

On a blustery London afternoon, Serena Williams tied Graf for the most number of Grand Slam titles in the Open era -- an astounding 22. By the time the curtains were drawn on the lopsided Wimbledon final, a hapless Angelique Kerber had been hassled, given a taxing old-school run around the court, and then skillfully executed.

Now, Williams had tangible proof for all those cynics who for long had cast a shadow over her status as the greatest woman player the sport of tennis has ever seen.

It would be fatuous to even entertain a thought that suggests otherwise. Williams has more major titles than Roger Federer (17), and there is general consensus that the Swiss is the most dominant player the sport has ever seen.

But as much as we love seeing Williams put her obliterating powers to such thrilling effect, the mind traipses to an uncomfortable question: Where would Williams stand among the pantheon of greats if the quality of the women's game had not so worryingly slumped in the last few years?

In a tournament that saw Williams win a seventh Wimbledon title, several seeds, including French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza, former World No 1 Jelena Jankovic, and former US Open champion Samantha Stosur, failed to make it to the second week.

Caroline Wozniacki, another former World No 1, crashed out in the first round. Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, touted by many as a potential World No 1, was sent tumbling out in the third round. Chances are that Williams would have thumpingly overcome all these casualties anyway, but such inconsistency forcibly makes you believe that Graf's damning assessment actually had some merit.

It wasn't always like that. The 1980s saw Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova entangled in an intriguing duel that made audiences salivate at the mere mention of a possible contest between the two; the 1990s brought with it Graf and Jana Novotna, and later, Martina Hingis; the turn of the millennium was witness to a muscular, power-driven tennis revolution that had Williams, her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters at its forefront.

Then, all of a sudden, in a befuddling merry-go-round, the mantle of the world's best woman player kept changing hands as if it were a slice of birthday cake that every player was warranted to have.

The somewhat premature retirements of Henin, Mauresmo and Clijsters robbed the sport of its most dexterous exponents almost overnight, and the void is proving to be too gargantuan to fill.

Roger Federer

IMAGE: Roger Federer. Photograph: Getty Images

Despite the tedium that they sometimes accompany, rivalries is what makes any sport great. It is unfathomable to think where the men's game would be without Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Their sheer box-office value is the sturdy adhesive that has held the men's game together for so long. This equilibrium may get shattered in the wake of Djokovic's omnipotent hold over the tour, but we've seen enough from the likes of Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic to prevent this possibility from becoming a reality.

Where would Williams stand among the pantheon of greats if the quality of the women's game had not so worryingly slumped in the last few years?

Williams, for example, has beaten six different players in her last six Grand Slam final victories. Djokovic, on the other hand, has defeated only four in a career that has seen him win 12 majors. That fans embrace such unpredictable engagements -- where anyone can beat anyone -- is a fallacy, as numbers over the years have shown.

The women's final at Wimbledon this year drew a peak audience of 5 million in the UK. That number for the men's final was pegged at more than double: 13 million. And, this was a final that did not involve Federer, Djokovic or Nadal.

Maria Sharapova

IMAGE: Maria Sharapova addresses a news conference. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The fact that Williams continues to bedazzle even at 34 years old is a stupefying testament to her longevity, and enormous tennis appetite. That some of the talented younger players get annihilated by her every week without putting up much of a fight is a ruinous confirmation of the lack of depth in the women's game.

With Maria Sharapova being handed a two-year ban for doping, the situation seems dire as ever.

Luckily for us, Williams -- all on her own -- has even kept some of the naysayers enthralled. But that cannot go on forever.

What women's tennis needs is a golden generation -- one that can make matches competitive and viewing more riveting. Steffi Graf will surely be keeping a close eye.

Dhruv Munjal
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