The importance of not having a Federer

NANDITA SRIDHAR

HERE is a little story. Not too long ago, Hurricane Roger was just a prediction, Anna Kournikova's soap opera on a tennis court was in its twilight, men's tennis was said to be swimming at the deep end of a pool when the women's game was spluttering at the shallow end, and two sisters had made up their minds that a clutch of Grand Slam trophies wouldn't look too bad in their living room. Spectators and viewers yawned, and critics cribbed about the women's game, the blink-and-miss nature of which was the subject of many jokes. "Ten minutes? That's the women. It's not for the men, not for the real game, mate," remarked the usually charming Lleyton Hewitt when asked whether Andy Roddick's 10-minute bathroom break exceeded the prescribed limit.

In life, things change. And when it comes to sport, when predictions are made and players written off, change knocks on the door. This year's Grand Slam roll-of-honour has four different names, Serena Williams (Australian Open), Justine Henin-Hardenne (French Open), Venus Williams (Wimbledon) and Kim Clijsters (US Open). And if you are looking for the No. 1 on the 2005 Grand Slam singles winners list, a certain Lindsay Davenport is missing from it as she looks down at the rest perched on the top of the WTA rankings. Amelie Mauresmo, who had mastered the brand of so-near-yet-so-far tennis till recently, lifted the year-ending WTA Championship title and Davenport's most frequent companion in playing the top numbers game on the WTA computer, Maria Sharapova, didn't make it to any Grand Slam final.

Compare this to the men's game. The Grand Slam winners Roger Federer, Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal appear to be a quiet little trio at an English tea party. With the distance between Federer and Nadal in the ATP computers not being conducive for a handshake — the Swiss is perched comfortably on top — Nadal can only manage an occasional peek upwards.

Injuries, personal problems, Russian Revolutions and comebacks have suddenly thrown up a number of Grand Slam contenders on the women's circuit, making it equal at the top. After their ruthless domination of the game till 2003, the Williams sisters had to cope with the death of their eldest sister, Yetunde Price, who was shot dead. To add to their miseries, their parents Oracene and Richard separated and both sisters found themselves spiralling down the rankings after suffering injuries.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, after lifting the 2004 Australian Open crown, suffered a knee injury and a mysterious blood virus. Kim Clijsters — who was at that time the female equivalent of what Goran Ivanisevic had been to the men's game till 2001, the bridesmaid of Grand Slam tennis — had a wrist injury and even contemplated retirement.

Suddenly, in 2004, tennis lovers used to Yankee Doodles and Belgian chocolates saw a host of `Ovas' and `Evas' (read Russians) invade the courts, and with the Russians sweeping the rest of the titles, a Russian Revolution was predicted for 2005.

But, it was a revolution that never happened this year. Sharapova, who defies all theories of Mhz physics with the sheer ear-shattering effect of her screeching and pounding game, suffered a chest-muscle strain that hampered her 2005 campaign. An increase in unforced errors did not help either. Elena Dementieva, whose almost non-existent serve is putting more pressure on her groundstrokes, played some good matches but not when it mattered. Anastasia Myskina's repeated injuries and her mother's ill-health took a toll on her game, and Svetlana Kuznetsova was just not the same after the drug allegations.

With the Russians failing to recreate the magic of 2004, the 2005 season saw the Williams sisters and the Belgians dust the cobwebs off their game, oil their rusty muscles and joints and prove that there is still some gas left in the tank. And joining them were Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, who critics thought would be better off applying wrinkle cream. Women's tennis had moved away from the shallow end.

But one is not likely to let out an Archimedes-like `Eureka' on hitting upon the major reason behind the competitive intensity in women's tennis — the women don't have a Roger Federer in their ranks. If Federer were temporarily requested to test the tennis skills of the Martians instead of gracefully bashing the clueless earthlings, the men's draw would look as equal as the women's. In such a situation, even Marat Safin might decide for a change that it is worth unpacking his mind along with his rackets at the beginning of a match. Rafael Nadal, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Guillermo Coria, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, with the Croats Ivo Karlovic, Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic closely behind, would make for great competition in the Grand Slams. James Blake, Richard Gasquet and Taylor Dent can always be relied on to cause occasional upsets.

The equality at the top of women's tennis may not be a trend that is on its last legs — this could just be the beginning of it. Injuries tend to be as much a part of the day-to-day life of modern tennis players as cheques and endorsements. "This is the kind of tournament where all the soldiers are down and it's just the case of whoever can get up," said Maria Sharapova during the WTA Championships. The players are tired. The mind might be greedy for more, but the body just wants a nice little couch for its battered joints and muscles.

Under the circumstances, predicting next year's pattern will be as dangerous an exercise as that of predicting Agassi's retirement. Injuries might say, "Hey, we can make comebacks too." If they keep their word, predictions will go for a toss. (Henin's slump in performance after her French Open win is an example of injuries making their own comebacks.) The Williams sisters might prefer fashioning clothes to wins, as they indicate on and off. Clijsters, having removed a gorilla-sized monkey off her back, might be a different player next year, and Mauresmo, after having had the final say this year, might just sneak in a Slam soon. And don't count any of the Russians out.

It sure looks as if 2006 might well complete the different-Slams-different-winners trilogy, with no player looking as if she is the person to beat. As for the men, they just have to cope with a different kind of equality, where one person is much, much more equal than the others.