Serena, still the favourite

If Serena Williams captures her sixth Aussie crown, at 31, she will become the oldest World No. 1 in women’s tennis. A position atop the world that everybody, apart from the officials in charge of the rankings at the WTA, thinks is rightfully hers, writes N. Sudarshan.

“I don’t feel like it’s bonus time,” Serena Williams said of her U.S. Open victory. “I feel like it’s time I deserve to have that I missed.” So true. This was also the time in which women’s tennis missed her in equal measure.

The year 2011 was one in which the women’s field didn’t have a measuring stick atop the rankings for other players to compare themselves with and compete against. Gone were the days of the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and the Belgians, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, ruling at the top. There were no storied rivalries such as the ones on which the men’s game thrived.

Two of the three preceding years saw Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki, without a single Grand Slam title to their name, finishing as the No. 1 ranked player. Women’s tennis sold itself for a while in the name of parity and for having an open field, but mediocrity was exposed sooner rather than later.

So when Petra Kvitova in late 2011 and Victoria Azarenka in early 2012 made the cut, the seeds for women’s tennis to move away from being anybody’s game were sown. Kvitova’s triumph at Wimbledon and Azarenka’s at the Australian Open were no doubt their maiden titles — keeping in sync with the sort of ‘openness’ that saw first-time Grand Slam winners in Francesca Schiavone, Li Na and Samantha Stosur in 2010 and 2011 — but were infinitely more resounding than the others. Comebacks for Maria Sharapova and Serena, and it would nicely round off a possible top tier in women’s tennis.

The calls were answered to an extent when Sharapova, after advancing to the Australian Open final in early 2012, won her maiden French title, completing her career Grand Slam. But Serena was still on her comeback trail. After losing close to a year due to a foot injury and an emergency treatment for blood clots in her lungs, she was yet to be back to her dominant best. She lost in the first round at the French Open; her worst ever performance in a Grand Slam.

But, just a month later, she was proudly showing off her fifth Venus Rosewater Dish. Then came the two Olympic gold medals, the U.S. Open and the season ending WTA Championships. It was one of her finest seasons with a win-loss record of 58-6. She also became the first woman in the Open era to have won a Grand Slam singles title 13 years after winning her first. Women’s tennis finally got its measuring stick.

Both at the U.S. Open and the season ending Championships, the trio of Serena, Azarenka and Sharapova made it to the semifinals, something that augurs well for the ladies’ game. Kvitova faded away a bit, but with a game as powerful as hers and the added advantage of being a left-hander, she is expected to come good again.

So, going into the new season, we have a 31-year-old American, who, after settling the question as to who the greatest of her generation is, marches towards the ultimate title of being the best ever, a 25-year-old Russian who can rightfully claim hers to be the comeback of the year and a 23-year-old Belarusian who had a perfect breakthrough year.

However, like in the last two years, the start of this year too was plagued by problems related to rankings. As was the case in the two previous years, this year too, the year-end No. 1 was not the WTA Player of the Year. Most have termed it absurd, but Serena doesn’t seem to be complaining.

In the run-up to the Australian Open, Serena won the Brisbane International; a tournament from which Sharapova pulled out at the start and Azarenka in the semifinals to recover in time from injuries. After the victory, runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova told Serena at the trophy presentation: “I always feel like I don’t know how to play tennis when I play against you.” Ominous signs indeed.

If Serena captures her sixth Aussie crown, at 31, she will become the oldest World No. 1 in women’s tennis. A position atop the world that everybody, apart from the officials in charge of the rankings at the WTA, thinks is rightfully hers.