Wednesday, December 29, 2004

2005 Intriguing Questions #5-6

Last time, the discussion dealt with evolutions. This time, it's "de-evolutions" that are the topics of choice in this edition of the 2005 IQ's.


2004 was a triumph for 28-year old Lindsay Davenport. She led the Tour in victories (63) and titles (7), and finished as the season-ending #1 for the first time since 2001 despite not having advanced to a slam singles final. In a year in which the Belgians dropped, the Russians rose and the Williamses wavered, she outlasted them all. But the grip on the top ranking, not just by Davenport, but also the American contingent as a whole, might be very short-lived... and when Davenport falls or retires, it could be quite a while before the #1 ranking and an American woman are once again synonymous.

As recently as 2001, Americans held the Top 3 (and 4 of 6) positions on the computer. But those glory days, which stretch back as far as 1981 (Americans filled the Top 4 slots with newly-naturalized Martina Navratilova in the mix) and peaked in 1983 (six Americans ranked in the Top 10), are over. While four Americans finished in the group in '04, they're all in various states of decline (Capriati, who last year went title-less for the first time since '98), injury and/or focus-prone (Venus and Serena, both still capable of much but definitely on the downsides of their careers) or contemplating retirement (Davenport, who'd be gone by now if not for her hardcourt prowess last summer).

The ten highest-ranked Americans are as follows:

#1 Davenport, 28
#7 S.Williams, 23
#9 V.Williams, 24
#10 Capriati, 28
#26 Frazier, 32
#30 Raymond, 31
#40 Shaughnessy, 25
#52 Rubin, 28
#53 Washington, 28
#59 Craybas, 30

Their average age is 27.7 (nearly 29 without the Williamses), and it's 26.3 for the fifteen Americans in the Top 100. The only under-20 American in the Top 150 is #123 Ashley Harkleroad, 19, for whom a successful tennis future is still an iffy proposition. The other teens in the Top 200 -- #155 Jamea Jackson, 18, #173 Bethanie Mattek & #191 Sunitha Rao, both 19, have yet to make their marks. Contrast that with the multiple Horde members (the average age of the Russian Top 10 is 21.9, and that's with 29-year old Elena Likhovtseva working against the numbers), and you hardly have the foundation on which great hopes are built. The staying power of vets like Davenport and Capriati have kept the U.S. numbers holding steady, but the looming reality is that the core of American female players is "dying out."

No budding young American star has risen to challenge the likes of foreign-born teens such as Sharapova, Golovin and Vaidisova. Who are the young players who'll do it? Is there anyone who'll even be good enough to be called the "next great American?" The odds are she'll arrive eventually, but so far she remains a mystery. Many thought to be up-and-comers (Harkleroad and #287 Alexandra Stevenson) haven't panned out for various reasons, while others with potential are still question marks (#69 Shenay Perry & #137 Angela Haynes, both 20). The field isn't bereft of under-18ers worth a look, though. Carly Gullickson, 17, advanced to her first ITF final in 2004; while 15-year old Julia Cohen won an ITF crown. The most intriguing girl might be Jessica Kirkland. The 17-year old was RU to world junior #1 Michaella Krajicek in the U.S. Open girls final, and claimed the prestigious Orange Bowl International championship earlier this month. It's too early to fully judge any of these teens, but it should be noted that Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, and Martina Hingis was a slam champ even earlier. It takes someone of super-superior skills and/or drive to be #1 in today's tennis, and if any of those girls had that we'd probably know it by now.

With the current state of things, barring a brief reprise of a #1-ranked Williams, it's hard to see another American even coming close to the top spot the rest of this decade, and likely much of the next. How did it come to this? It used to be that great American female athletes consistently gravitated to tennis, but it could be that the growing boom in female team sports (basketball, soccer & softball) in the U.S. has finally altered the course of history as far as the development of tennis stars. It happened to the men's list of prospects years ago. Even now, subtract Andy Roddick and you have a pretty bland, ordinary lot of young American men despite the tremendous population from which to cull. But past success, no matter how long-standing or grand, doesn't guarantee future stars. After all, when was the last time you saw a German girl with #1 potential not named Graf?

The American presence near the top of the rankings will last as long as the Williams sisters stick around. After that, it's anyone's guess. Eventually, one would think the influence of the sisters will bring talent through the ranks as more and more minorities get opportunities that didn't used to exist in the sport. As with the Tiger Woods-inspired golf kids, the Venus & Serena-fueled girls are likely still a few years from breaking through.

On the men's side, though, the Williams inroads are being seen. The boys' side of the Orange Bowl event pitted two African-Americans, 17-year old Timothy Neilly and 15-year old Donald Young, in the final in a battle to become the first black to win the 58-year old event. For the record, Neilly won the title. The U.S. is still waiting for his junior female equivalent.

Ironically, the rise of the Russians -- one, in particular -- might help the American cause as much as anything. Sharapova is "Americanized," as the Spartaks like to remind us. Maybe a new generation of talented American girls will want to grow up to be like the Supernova. If so, good times are ahead... but it'll be a while before those voices are heard on Tour. Tennis is a world-wide game, and the rankings have never been a better example of that than they are right now. That's a good thing, unless you're a fan of American tennis players... or watch TV coverage in the States, which almost exclusively focuses on home-grown stars on channels such as ESPN. To American TV, many of the young foreign stars barely exist. Though, to be fair, that gripe persists more in the coverage of the ATP than WTA. But it's still an issue... and that's why Sharapova is so important.

The Supernova "moves the dial," as they say. People pay attention to her, and she even wins. Let the Myskinas, Kuznetsovas and Dementievas inspire future Hordettes. America will gladly embrace Sharapova if given the chance. Maybe by the end of 2005, a girl will finally establish herself as the next great American to watch. As of now, that role remains uncast.

Another season will soon go by without an American teen claiming a WTA singles title. 2006 might see the end of the drought if Kirkland (or Cohen, etc.) pans out. But, as things currently stand, this looks like it could be a long waiting game.



This is an easy one. Yes. Yes, it is. Has been for a while, in fact. In tennis terms, the days of Williams dominance are long gone.

But what did the era mean? In assessing the period from 1999-03, it's apparent that Venus and Serena fulfilled their roles in history. They uplifted the women's tour when it needed it most, brought new fans and attention to the game and, most importantly, forced the field to improve to compete just as the Navratilovas and Grafs did before them.

With a greater pool of talent, and the more fragile Williams bodies, the "wine and roses" days didn't last long. But the sisters have left a mark on history, claiming a total of ten slam titles over a four-year period, facing off against each other in four consecutive slam finals at one point. But even as both finished 2004 outside the Top 5 for the first time since 1998, it doesn't mean that one or both won't win another slam title (though, for the first time, that now appears to not be a sure thing by any means), if not briefly even reclaim the #1 ranking.

As Serena's 2002-03 "Serena Slam" run showed, when healthy and in form, she's by far the most talented pure player out there. But since those heights, her focus has been fragmented (by way of fashion, acting, premieres and various e-mail adventures, both real and fake), form unreliable and training schedule truncated, sporadic or impossible due to injuries or other concerns. 2004 put Serena's current reality on full display. It's not a bad reality, but it's not the one to which the former #1 was once accustomed.

After missing the last half of '03 with a knee injury, she didn't play until March... but still returned to win her first event back (Tier I Miami). She survived a tough Wimbledon SF against Mauresmo, but couldn't follow it up in the final and was beaten at her own hard-hitting game by Maria Sharapova. She made headlines at the U.S. Open, but only managed to make it to the QF. She put everything together in Beijing, knocking off four Russians in succession (Kuznetsova in the final) to take the title; then, for a while, she even looked like her old self at the WTA Championships. She defeated Myskina, Dementieva and Mauresmo to get to the final, but her body gave out on her once again against Sharapova.

Now, on occasion, Serena is able to recapture her former dominance, but maintaining it for very long (such as, say, over a two-week slam) is a sketchy prospect unless she's given a golden draw that provides just the right easy/challenging balance of opponents. It's likely to be that way for the rest of her career. It's possible that Serena, now 23, will have an Agassi-like late career Second Act. Maybe not. It's easy to think she has one or two more big slam runs left in her. But if she doesn't, it probably won't wear on her mind for long. She'll just move to her next big adventure in life. That's a sign that Richard and Oracene raised a more well-rounded woman than well-rounded professional tennis player, and that's hardly a bad thing these days.

The same goes for Venus, but, recent seasons notwithstanding, there's a school of thought that says the earlier-arriving older sister will also be the last of the two to leave the game behind. Overshadowed since Serena surged to a grand slam title first ('99 U.S.), Venus has since gone 2-7 against her (including their last five slam final matchups). Having Serena around pushed Venus' career, by comparison, out of the limelight. She hasn't won a slam crown since '01, and now trails 6-4 in total major titles.

But Venus could win the battle over the long run, as the breadth of her career might just trump Serena's. It's certainly easier to see the now 24-year old Venus lasting into her "Davenport years" than Serena doing the same. Her life's not as cluttered or controversial off the court, and the more quiet sister doesn't woo potential bad press quite as famously, either. She showed an ability to put together weeks of dominance in 2004, too, forging an intriguing, but largely forgotten, mid-year stretch on the clay when she won 13 straight matches and two titles before an injury forced her out of the Berlin final against Mauresmo. And if not for Davenport's superior hardcourt play in the Fall (she won four straight events), Venus would have been the North American/U.S. Open Series star. She went 0-3 against her fellow American, pushing Davenport like no one else during the stretch and reacting angrily when she couldn't quite wrestle away any of the matches. That's a good sign. After years of questions, it was proof that there's still something wanting more inside Venus... it's something about unfinished business.

Maybe with Serena out of the way, or off at her latest premiere or party, Venus will find her way back near the top again. There's still time and, apparently, the inclination. Serena's star might have burned the brightest, but Venus Ebony Starr could be the sister who comes out on top.

2005 will provide the first sign that'll she'll be the ultimate "victor" in this sisterly contest, as she'll stay healthier, win more titles and finish higher in the rankings than Serena. The sisters have made the Tour better. No matter what anyone's ever said or thought about their tactics, perceived arrogance or commitment, you can't argue with that.

Tennis is far better off having had them, and no one else will ever be quite like them -- they'll only hope to be pale imitations. When they're gone, they'll be sorely missed. That day, thankfully, hasn't arrived yet... so we shouldn't take them for granted while they're still around.


==EITHER/OR=='s the slightly mystical portion of this extended Backspin season preview. It's where I pick a preference between two choices, not necessarily based on predicted rank or accomplishments by the end of the upcoming season, but as just a January "feel" for which will be living under a brighter sky as 2005 comes to a close twelves months from now. (ALL CAPS means they're my choice)

ANNA CHAKVETADZE/Anna Kournikova...
okay, that's an easy one

DAMIR DOKIC/Jelena Dokic...
is there any real "winner" here? I figure Damir will declare himself the victor in any case.

VERA ZVONAREVA/Vera Douchevina...
2005 might be the time for Vera the Almost to join the "big girls"

PUNCH-SOBER/The Czarina...
the AP ranked Dementieva higher on its Female Athlete of the Year list than either of the Russians who beat her in grand slam finals

Martina the Elder knows her future and has no regrets about her past (and she knows how to pick young doubles partners, too -- for '05 it'll be Hantuchova)

does this count as piling on the Debutante?

ELKE CLIJSTERS/Kim Clijsters...
maybe not, but this'll seem like nothing after you read Pierre Cantin's prediction for FilaKim in '05

LLEYTON HEWITT/Jaslyn Hewitt...
can you say, "Moving on?"

VENUS WILLIAMS/Serena Williams...
older, more stable, still with something to prove

THE CONTESSOVA/The Supernova...
which is more Russian won't matter. Who wins the most titles will, though.

All for now.

============================= =============================

Next Up:

Kim and Justine, together again... if only in their Backspin IQ's for 2005. Plus, "Pierre's Picks!"


Post a Comment

<< Home