It’ll be tough for the young brigade

A shocker at Wimbledon was followed by a string of success that reaffirmed Justine Henin’s stature in the women’s game, and makes her the woman to beat in 2008.-AP

Three of the most accomplished and experienced campaigners — Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Venus Williams — grabbed the Grand Slam silverwares in 2007. Will this year usher in new champions? By Nandita Sridhar.

A touch of climactic stability turned 2007 into the undisputed year of Justine Henin. Before the Belgian juggernaut rolled post-Wimbledon, the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and the Serbs had made it a curious year. Women’s tennis seemed torn between its recent past and foreseeable future. Henin, by the sheer weight of her results, sealed things in her favour.

Henin has threatened to keep working on her game. She lost just four matches last year, with the defeat to the wide-eyed, Pierce Brosnan-struck Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon the most unexpected. Earlier, opponents struggled to cope with her intensity and a bloody-minded functionality, but this time they were faced with all that and a newfound inner tranquillity.

A broken marriage was misread as preceding an erosion of inner steel; but rediscovering familial ties thereafter made her much stronger. A shocker at Wimbledon was followed by a string of success — Henin won 25 matches in a row, which culminated in her winning the year-end championship — that reaffirmed her stature in the women’s game, and makes her the woman to beat in 2008. The Williams sisters charted comebacks as only they could — with little preparation, no preceding success of note, yet a common self-belief that had a life of its own. For an opponent, the eerie familiarity of it all meant a fulfilling of the Williamses’ mission.

Three of the most accomplished and experienced campaigners grabbed the Grand Slam silverwares in 2007. Will this year usher in new champions?

Ana Ivanovic is deceptively tough.-AP

The Serbs and the rest from Eastern Europe have provided the Tour with more than an influx of gushing youth. Serbia’s Ana Ivanovic isn’t twinkle-toes, but strikes a mean forehand. The 20-year-old looks the champion, with an execution that’s fluid, and weighty shots on both flanks. Her serve is both quick and precarious, a problem that needs to be ironed out.

Compared to her first Slam final appearance last year, when she imploded in the face of possibilities, Ivanovic should be less jelly-kneed this time if offered a chance. Before that, she needs to close the gap on her head-to-head with Henin and the Williamses. Henin has a 4-0 record over her, while Serena and Venus are ahead of her 1-0 and 4-0 respectively. On the face of it, Ivanovic, with an endearing smile and a mortifying fear of being misquoted, seems less inclined to win a dogfight, but she is deceptively tough.

“I was quite close against Justine, I lost it 6-4 in the final set (at Sydney). The Williams sisters — they have a different game. They’re very powerful and it’s hard to get rhythm against them. But I’ve worked hard on improving my game to beat them and to be able to handle their pace,” said Ivanovic.

Jelena Jankovic is yet to prove her temperament on the Grand Slam stage. She was unconvincing in her Roland Garros semifinal against Henin. The 22-year-old is seldom spotted not playing. Her serve has too much spin and too little spite. She uses her groundstrokes to engineer escapes when let down by an impotent serve. And her footwork, with an all-surface slide, backs her intent.

However, Jankovic plays too many tournaments of little relevance. It stands testimony to her fitness, but burns her out for the high-intensity, crucial Slam matches. Chances are that she may stay in the Top-5, but a Grand Slam title might have to wait.

Both the Serbs represent the Eastern European bunch that has altered the map of women’s tennis. They arrive foreign-trained, with traumatic pasts and a strange loyalty to their homeland. They’re not just players, but ambassadors. Fuelled by their past, their dreams are large-sized. Their domination seems inevitable, but it’s a question of when.

To threaten Henin, Serena and Venus in Slams, the rest have to make that mental breakthrough. Henin is easily the most intimidating of the three. Her strokes are beautiful, exotic and destructive, but more than that, her emotional steadiness is unnerving.

She never wilted when steeped in personal trauma, and she won’t now. Serena and Venus present a more physical roadblock. They seem impenetrable sometimes. Serena is aggressive and vociferous, while Venus, mainly on grass, is powerful.

To get past Henin, Serena and Venus, one has to first overcome the aura surrounding the three, and then the enormity of the challenge. Being more consistent against them in the smaller tournaments will be a good start.

Unlike Ivanovic, who’s yet to beat either Henin, Serena or Venus, Jankovic has a better record against the Williams sisters though her record against Henin is dismal. Her 0-9 head-to-head against the Belgian has made Jankovic seek refuge in self-depreciation. She has to find a way out of the rut against Henin.

Besides the Serbs, Russia’s Anna Chakvetadze has the game and the brain to get to the top, but is emotionally fragile. And then there’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, who by some force of mystery, is world No. 2.

Where does all this put Maria Sharapova? The Russian is too young to belong to the league of Henin and the Williamses, and too accomplished to be slotted as a potential threat.

A shoulder injury severely hampered her cause in 2007, but the 20-year-old’s competitive instincts can match that of her senior colleagues. If anyone can come off a slump, it’s Sharapova.

In theory, the year offers the younger crop a chance to inch closer to the Slam breakthrough; only that Henin, Serena and to a certain degree Venus aren’t willing to relinquish their hold. A similar scene was witnessed in 2004, when Anastasia Myskina, Sharapova and Kuznetsova promised a lot. Henin and the Williamses, much to their credit, were self-involved enough to come back.

Age will catch up with Henin and the Williams sisters, but it will take some effort to overpower them. Henin, 25, is as fit as she ever was, while Serena has shed all the flab. Venus on grass is an impassive looming threat.

Unless the youngsters play out of their skin, one gets the feeling that the game’s future Grand Slam champions will only play as well as the current champions allow them to.