Wednesday, December 27, 2006

#5/#6: The Best Laid Plans of Babes, both Big and Little

Twenty-five years ago, many people looked at the force that Martina Navratilova had become and saw the future of women's tennis... and they didn't like it. They acknowledged Navratilova's ability, but they weren't comfortable with the entire notion of her. And it wasn't just because she was gay, born in a Communist country and NOT Chris Evert, either. Her game, for all appearances at the time, was one based on strength. Physical dominance, really. For some, it simply wasn't "feminine enough."

My, how times change.

In retrospect, Navratilova had simply molded herself (with the help of a cadre of experts) into a truth a-t-h-l-e-t-e in every sense of the word. She had the best hands and reflexes at the net in the history of the women's game (and, maybe if not for John McEnroe, in the history of tennis, period). She revolutionized the way female athletes train, and intimidated her opponents sometimes by simply showing up on the other side of the net.

But Martina wasn't a "big babe."

At 5-feet-8, seeing the 40-ish Navratilova stand alongside some of the 6-foot-plus, ball-smashing, serve-ripping players who arrived on the scene in the late 1990's riding the new wave of racket technology and the Bollettieri-styled baseline basher mentality was to sometimes be stunned by the juxtaposition. Often she was physically dwarfed by her fellow competitors.

Considering nature's evolutionary law of survival of the fittest, it's no surprise that "big babe tennis," so dubbed by Billie Jean King way back when, took over the tour in the late 1990's/early 2000's. Lindsay. Venus. Serena. Jennifer. Mary. They arrived like an invading force. After years of slam titles being spread out amongst methodical baseliners (Conchita Martinez), charging volleyers (Jana Novotna), scrappy grinders (Arantxa Sanchez Vicario), clever shotmakers (Martina Hingis) and big hitters (Steffi Graf & Monica Seles), the "big babes" took over.

From 1999-03, unmistakable Big Babes won 16 of 20 slam titles. For a while, women's tennis became an entirely different sport. Throw together the blistering groundstrokes of a Graf with the natural height of the new breed of serve-crushing top women's players, and even the world #1 -- at the time, Hingis -- eventually quaked in her shoes.

The 5-feet-7 Hingis, blessed with an innate craftiness and intelligence on court that far surpassed her rivals, won five slam titles as a teenager in Graf's waning years, just before the arrival of the Big Babes. She was #1 for 209 weeks before the onslaught physically pushed her back against the wall (and, literally, her feet behind the baseline due to the power of the shots coming back at her so quickly)... and, unable to cope, the Swiss Miss fled the game entirely after the 2002 season.

Many bemoaned the new power game. It lacked finesse and gameplanning, they said, as most Big Babes chose to bash from the baseline with little conscious or forethought. They could blast winners from all angles, but their impatience meant that the art of constructing a point was placed on the endangered list. Unlike earlier, people didn't frown because it all was "unfeminine"... but because it was "boring" and "uninteresting."

Fast forward four seasons, and Hingis is back. She ended 2006 ranked #7, while the era (or at least the outright dominance) of the physically menacing Big Babes has largely passed. What happened?

Well, certainly the racket technology that aided the rise of the Big Babes eventually helped the "Little Babes" keep up as much as it had helped the Big Babes exponentially increase their natural advantage over their more "classic" competition. Smaller players still had less power, but they generated enough to no longer be blown off the court by the sheer power of their larger opponents.

Injuries, too, played a large part. While there was more of a Big Babe for a tennis fan to love, there was more of them to get hurt, too. All the BB's have suffered through back, shoulder, wrist and knee maladies (and, in the case of Mary Pierce, pretty much all of the above) that limited their activity, disrupted their timing and gradually wore down those shots that used to paralyze and limit the options of smaller players.

And, not least of all, Justine Henin-Hardenne happened, as well.

Even at 5-feet-5, JHH showed that it WAS possible to chop down the large trees that had encircled the WTA tour. Although, in a sense, JHH was a hybrid -- a Little Babe with a Big Babe's game. She's still managed to scrape out five slam championships in the last four years with a blend of force, aggression and intimidation... all traits of a classic Big Babe co-existing in the form of a player who's almost always the tiniest competitor on the court.

In Hingis' absence, the likes of Anastasia Myskina and Kim Clijsters -- not powderpuffs, especially Clijsters, but hardly physically dominating presences -- won slam crowns, too.

All of it likely played no small role in Hingis' decision to return. The Swiss Miss is a smart cookie, and she could see the worm was turning back in her favor. It was apparent that her game could ultimately outlast those of the faltering Big Babes... and she returned to a sport that closely resembled the one to which she arrived as a 16-year old sprite. For a Little Babe like Hingis, patience was an imperative for success. More architect than battering ram, the thought was that she might be able to use the new technology to compensate for part of the Big-vs-Little imbalance, closing the competitive gap because of the Big Babes' lack of tactics and (sometimes) sound technique.

All in all, the notion was a correct one.

In 2006, Hingis won two titles (including Rome, one of three Tier I finals in which she appeared), reached the QF of the Australian and U.S. Opens, and defeated Maria Sharapova (6-feet-2), Venus and Davenport. Her success proved that JHH's success was no aberration. The WTA tour WAS safe for Little Babes again.

Thus, after this extended preamble, I must finally ask...

IQ #6: Have the Little Babes Inherited the Earth?

Well, let's not get carried away. The original Big Babes might be gone, but the classic Little Babes are still few and far between. 2006's slams were shared by Sharapova (who's a 6-foot-plus power player, but she doesn't physically impose herself in the fashion of an in-form Venus or Serena), JHH (a hyrid player) and Amelie Mauresmo (a big babe -- with a small "b" -- with something of a Little Babe's game of finesse and touch).

The most "conventional" Little Babes ranked in the Top 20 are Hingis and 19-year old Russian Anna Chakvetadze... two players so close in playing style it's as if they were formed from the same mold.

Hingis entered '06 as a welcome returnee emblazoned with a big question mark on her back, but ended it feeling more competitive with the top players who'd chased her from the game three seasons earlier. Her Hingis II wins over Venus and Davenport came after suffering through Hingis I-closing stretches of 2-6 and 3-8, respectively, against them. Her better attitude was apparent, but while she was 48-7 against players ranked outside the Top 10 she was just 5-12 against Top 10ers. Obviously, the pre-eminent Little Babe is still quite a ways from reclaiming a dominant tour position. Obviously, she still needs all her guile to compete with the game's best, Big or not.

Meanwhile, Chakvetadze came into last season as a good young player with promise, but left it as a near Top 10er (#13) with a Tier I title in Moscow who seemed be even be surprising herself after putting on a pretty good impression of being an improved version of Martina... "Hingis, version 2.0," if you will. 6-3 against Top 10ers and surging in the season's final months, the potential she flashed could make her the rising player to watch in '07.

With the playing field leveled a bit, the combination of Big and Little Babe can make for some intriguing tennis matchups (case in point, the two three-set Hingis-Venus matches of last season). The Little Babes might not be ready to inherit the tennis world, but they have proven that they can not only outlast the Big Babes, but coexist with them, as well. That wasn't the case a few years ago.


IQ #5: Can the Big Babes Rise Again?

Ironically, as strong as the Big Babes were, both their games and bodies were fragile. Overpowering opponents with big serves and heavy groundstrokes that could win points from virtually anywhere on the court offered little finesse, and BB's were more prone to seeing their game fly off at a moment's notice due to problems in technique. Opting for brute force, they were often exciting, but also frustrating.

Part of the reason the Big Babes' hold on the sport has waned is because so many are either gone, going or trapped in career limbo. But even with the future of an injured Capriati and Pierce in doubt (at best), and Davenport pregnant, there IS still hope in the form of the Williams sisters... two of the last remaining practitioners of Big Babe tennis.

Venus and Serena could still do major damage on tour, but thanks to continuing injury problems they barely even had cameos in their own careers last season. Venus was 13-6. Serena 12-4. Venus finished ranked #48. Serena #95. Neither won a singles title for the first time since 1998, nor even reached a final. In Melbourne, Venus lost in the 1st Round while Serena was dumped out in the 3rd... the earliest ever dual exit for the sisters in a slam. This year's Wimbledon final didn't include a Williams for the first time since 1999.

Still, when they were healthy and focused, they caused ripples in the WTA waters. Venus reached the Roland Garros QF on her least hospitable surface just weeks after notching a SF in Rome. Serena, after an extended break, returned to action during the U.S. Open Series and notched SF results in Cincinnati and Los Angeles.

But, of course, Venus played just two matches after Wimbledon. Serena never played again after the U.S. Open. As great as the sisters can still be, their's is an unreliable presence. The tour must be thanking the tennis gods for the likes of the marketable (and consistently in form, and in attendence) Sharapova... especially with the crowd-pleasing Clijsters promising to walk away after the '07 season.

This offseason, Venus and Serena have been in the headlines often... butt not because of their tennis. They've been IN court more often than ON court (this week, they were in Miami for "Monday Night Football"), and Venus' injured wrist means she might miss the Australian Open.

The beat goes on.

But they're still relevant because while their games are now hit-and-miss, they're still talented enough to collect themselves at some point and wreak havoc on a draw. They came out of nowhere to combine for two slam titles in '05 (something that had never happened in a single season before then), and Serena in form and determined to prove something is still the most awesome thing to watch in women's tennis (and in TENNIS, period, this side of Roger Federer). We'll probably see evidence of the sisters' past dominance again, in brief doses, but who knows when it'll come (and you have to fight the urge to say IF it will)... unless one or both fashion an Agassi-like late-career renaissance that regenerates their historical significance and makes everyone forget about the previous rough patches.

In the battle of the classic Big Babes vs. the classic Little Babes, the sisters have a better shot a more greatness down the line, but Hingis and Chakvetadze can be counted on to be in the fight on a week in, week out basis throughout this and future seasons.

Size still matters... just not as much as it used to.

PREDICTION DART BOARD: Both Hingis and Chakvetadze will reach slam semifinals in 2007, but one of the Williams sisters will reach a slam Final... the two Little Babes will combine for more slam QF than the two Big Babes... Chakvetadze will win three titles, but not another Tier I... Hingis WILL win a Tier I, though... while Venus and Serena will not be shut out of any tour titles again in '07, neither will win one until the U.S. Open Series.

All for now.


UP NEXT: 'ova vs. 'ova... the battle for position



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