Pecking order still not clear

Maria Sharapova is back on track. But can she keep purring like a Porsche?-AP ?

How does women's tennis look like this year? The stories write themselves: Serena Williams looking for dominance in her 30s to strengthen her case for being the greatest ever; Maria Sharapova looking to add to her Grand Slam collection, which stands at an underwhelming three; Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka looking to usurp power and establish legacies. Women's tennis is decidedly looking up. An analysis by S. Ram Mahesh.

When Maria Sharapova took Stuttgart recently, winning her first title since August last, she wasn't the only one beaming. Also beaming — less attractively, of course — were marketers, racketeers, editors. In short, the people that profit from Brand Sharapova. On-court success isn't central to the profitability of her brand, it makes millions regardless, but a little winning never hurt anyone. It's a pity that Sharapova, the tennis player, has been co-opted, in popular perception, by Sharapova, the celebrity, for the Russian's commitment to her sport has never wavered. The easy life has often beckoned to her; she has chosen tennis every time despite knowing that not being a natural she has to work fiercely to keep up.

To anyone who has cared to notice, Sharapova's actions have made obvious her priorities. “Really, it's only about like a minute experience, but it's really terrifying and it's … I don't want to say ‘fake', but it's a very … it's one big illusion, to be honest,” she said of her celebrity-being. “The things you see on a red carpet — everything is perfect, the image of a person there dressed beautifully with hair and makeup and wonderful styling. . . But I come home an hour later and I take everything off, and, you know, ‘where did all that glamour go?' So, I mean, I love what I do. I love playing tennis, and I know that thing that ultimately wins me matches is the hard work I put on the court.”

Sharapova's triumph moreover has come during an interesting time in women's tennis. She herself is enjoying something of a resurgence. After being forced to miss the 2008 US Open and the 2009 Australian Open by a shoulder injury that required surgery (and continues to hinder her serve), she struggled, making just one quarterfinal in eight Grand Slam appearances. But at last year's Wimbledon she reached her first major final since 2008 and she followed it up by advancing to the final of the Australian Open earlier this year. Although she suffered a third-round exit in the US Open in between, Sharapova's performance on her least favourite surface, in the 2011 French Open, where she lost to eventual champion Li Na in a tough semifinal, suggested she was returning to her best.

Petra Kvitova has the game to go far.-AP

The WTA tour has mirrored Sharapova's uptick, its following improving from mild apathy to genuine curiosity. Sport is at its most engaging when the main-event scene is vibrant, featuring a set of diverse, dominant talents, and the mid-card is competitive, containing several athletes who challenge those above them. Here is familiarity and novelty, breadth and depth. At the top, great rivalries form and evolve organically, gathering layers as they grow. Complementing these storied rivalries are fresh, intriguing match-ups between the mid-card and the main-event, each group driving the other to excellence. This certainly is the ideal — although it rarely happens, for such a happy occurrence requires many, many things to align, some echo of it can be detected in nearly every popular era.

Unfortunately for women's tennis, the period that followed the dominance of the Williams sisters and Justine Henin was one of vapid vacuum. While the men's game witnessed the succession of dominance from Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal to Novak Djokovic, the quality of play forever rising, the women's side had Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki finishing three of the last four years ranked No.1. Jankovic and Wozniacki aren't main-event talent: they are much too passive and it's no surprise they haven't won a Grand Slam title. And while Wozniacki, 21, might yet transition from good to great (sadly for Jankovic, the game appears to have passed her by), their time at the top of women's tennis was worrying. There's nothing wrong with parity, with players bunched tightly together in the absence of a prevailing top tier. For it to work, however, the level of play must compel attention.

But with Serena and Kim Clijsters — and to a lesser extent, Venus and Sharapova — making deep runs and winning majors and lesser tournaments during their many comebacks, it was hard to shake off the feeling that the rest simply didn't cut it. That was until first Petra Kvitova in 2011 and then Victoria Azarenka earlier this year broke through.

Victoria Azarenka's persistence is her greatest virtue.-

Although Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, and Samantha Stosur became first-time Grand Slam winners in 2010 and 2011, their triumphs, while worthy and heart-warming, didn't have the resonance that Kvitova's Wimbledon and Azarenka's Australian Open titles did. Here it seemed were two young players that would form the next marquee rivalry and do to women's tennis what Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills (in just one epic, never-seen-before bit of theatre, mind), Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Navratilova and Steffi Graf, Graf and Monica Seles, and Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin did.

Kvitova is the most spectacular talent the game has seen since Serena and Henin. While the 22-year-old Czech doesn't move as well as either of those great champions, she makes up by being able to hurt her opponents even when pushed on the defensive, her explosive ball-striking and natural timing allowing her to control and end rallies from difficult positions. Her left-handedness adds to her game, particularly the forehand and the serve, which find angles their right-handed cousins cannot. Despite a tendency to blow hot and cold, Kvitova is a big-match player. It's this ability to trust her skill under pressure, an uncommon gift even among elite athletes, that marks her out as a great-champion-in-waiting.

Azarenka, who'll turn 23 in July, mightn't catch the eye like Kvitova does, but her efficient, intense, constant-pressuring style is designed for victory.

Serena Williams has reasons to smile, especially after winning a tournament recently in Charleston. She will go all out to stamp her name indelibly in tennis history.-AP

Marion Bartoli, who snapped Azarenka's 26-match winning streak in Miami in March, described the challenge of playing the Belarusian thus: “Against Vika you have to really stay close to your baseline. If you give some inches to her and give her some court to walk on, she's really stepping up inside the court and you have to run so many miles.” Azarenka's phenomenal start to 2012 was compared to Djokovic's 2011, and her game isn't unlike Djokovic's, particularly the ability to seamlessly combine great defence and effective offence.

And like Djokovic, Azarenka isn't wary of letting her ambitions be known: she spoke after winning the Australian Open of targeting the Golden Grand Slam in 2012!

Kvitova and Azarenka showed what their rivalry can become, in the season-ending WTA Tour Championship Finals in 2011. (Kvitova won the three-setter to lead their head-to head 4-2). They haven't played since, for Kvitova hasn't made a final. The narrative this year has involved Sharapova (who both had beaten for their first Grand Slam titles) and Azarenka. At Stuttgart, Sharapova finally defeated Azarenka in a final for the first time in five attempts. Elsewhere, in Charleston, Serena won her first title of the season (only her third after her return from a freak accident and a life-threatening lung-clot in 2011). With Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena, and Kvitova, the main-event scene looks richer than it has in years — two of the strongest-willed competitors ever to play, in Serena and Sharapova and two of the most complete, assured 22-year-olds, in Azarenka and Kvitova. The stories write themselves: Serena looking for dominance in her 30s to strengthen her case for being the greatest ever; Sharapova looking to add to her Grand Slam collection, which stands at an underwhelming three; Kvitova and Azarenka looking to usurp power and establish legacies.

And with a mid-card containing Wozniacki, Agnieszka Radawanska (whose take on counter-punching is delightfully old-style), Stosur, Li Na, Bartoli, Vera Zvonerva, Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Julia Goerges, Sabine Lisicki, and since it's the clay season, Schiavone and Sara Errani, women's tennis is decidedly looking up.

THE WOMEN WHO MATTER VICTORIA AZARENKA Country: Belarus Born: July 31, 1989 Ranked: 1 Win %: 71 Height: 1.83m Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand) Grand Slam titles: 1 - Australian Open (2012) WTA titles: 12

Head-to-head: trails Sharapova 4-5, Kvitova 2-4, Serena 1-6

MARIA SHARAPOVA Country: Russia Born: April 19, 1987 Ranked: 2 Win %: 80 Height: 1.88m Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Grand Slam titles: 3 - Australian Open (2008), Wimbledon (2004), US Open (2006)

WTA titles: 25

Head-to-head: leads Kvitova 3-2, Azarenka 5-4, trails Serena 2-7

PETRA KVITOVA Country: Czech Republic Born: March 8, 1990 Ranked: 3 Win %: 68 Height: 1.83m Plays: Left-handed (two-handed backhand) Grand Slam titles: 1 - Wimbledon (2011) WTA titles: 7

Head-to-head: leads Azarenka 4-2, trails Sharapova 2-3, Serena 0-2

SERENA WILLIAMS Country: United States Born: Sept 26, 1981 Ranked: 9 Win %: 83 Height: 1.75m Plays: Right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Grand Slam titles: 13 - Australian Open (2003, 05, 07, 09, 10), French Open (2002), Wimbledon (2002, 03, 09, 10), US Open (1999, 2002, 08)

WTA titles: 40

Head-to-head: leads Sharapova 7-2, Kvitova 2-0, Azarenka 6-1

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Those who have won at least three majors in a year

HELEN WILLS

1928: French Championships, Wimbledon, & U.S. Championships

1929: French Championships, Wimbledon, & U.S. Championships

Note: Never played the Australian Championships. Won all 16 majors she played from the 1924 U.S. Championships to the 1933 Wimbledon Championships.

MAUREEN CONNOLLY BRINKER 1953: Calendar year Grand Slam MARGARET COURT

1962: Australian, French, & U.S. Championships

1965: Australian, Wimbledon, & U.S. Championships

1969: Australian, French, & U.S. Open 1970: Calendar year Grand Slam 1973: Australian, French, & U.S. Open BILLIE JEAN KING 1972: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open MARTINA NAVRATILOVA 1983: Wimbledon, U.S. Open, & Australian Open 1984: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open STEFFI GRAF 1988: Calendar year Golden Grand Slam 1989: Australian Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open 1993: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open 1995: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open 1996: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open MONICA SELES

1991: Australian Open, French Open, & U.S. Open

1992: Australian Open, French Open, & U.S. Open

MARTINA HINGIS 1997: Australian Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open SERENA WILLIAMS 2002: French Open, Wimbledon, & U.S. Open