A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

2010 Women’s Tennis Wrap Up: State of the Game; Player of the Year

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State of the Game

With Kim Clijsters victory at the WTA Championships in Qatar, the WTA season is basically over, and it’s a good time to reflect on the state of the women’s game.
To put it bluntly, and to speak the obvious, it’s not doing that well. Despite a recent change in scheduling to reduce the load on the athletes, injuries are rampant. Maybe more disturbing is that there is a perception, that whatever old champ is healthy at a given moment (Serena, Venus, Clijsters, Henin) will win any tournament that matters.Caroline Wozniacki is the latest young player to come out and race to the #1 ranking by playing a ton of matches without winning a Grand Slam tournament. Even more frustrating, she’s got the most media-friendly looks since Anna Kournikova, and a megawatt personality to match – but because of her lack of power game it seems unlikely she’ll ever become a dominant champion.
A complete explanation for what’s going on seems impossible. If you’re a super-talented female athlete who could thrive in any sport, you’ll pick tennis in most places throughout the world. This is a big advantage that men’s tennis simply doesn’t have, so all things being equal, we should expect to see more impressive stuff on the women’s side beyond just beauty that put the men’s game to shame. And we have in previous generations – look at the power couple of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, it’s pretty clear that Graf has the superior brain for competing as an athlete. That the current women’s game falls so short is stunning, and mysterious, but we can speak to a few of issues going on.

1) The domination by Serena’s generation wouldn’t be so frustrating if it appeared to be simply the tail end of great and consistent domination. Instead, that generation was glaringly marred by players not living up to potential. We saw this first with Kournikova becoming a celebrity to the point where her tennis game really didn’t matter to her. A beautiful star female tennis player can make a lot more money off the court than a male. Typically we don’t see this as glaring as with Kournikova, but Martina Hingisand the Williams sisters still felt it some. Bottom line is when you’re on the red carpet or designing your own clothing line, you aren’t practicing tennis, This may be something that haunts women’s tennis for the foreseeable future.
2) We just don’t seem to be getting new superstar level players in the game. This is a real problem for the game right now, but I think it’s simply bad luck. As long as tennis is the best way to become a star as a female athlete, the talent pool is not going to dry up. I think the reality for all sports is that you can reliably raise the quality of the field with a bigger talent pool, but you can’t reliably develop superstars. Such athletes will always be outliers, and so the quality there is going to go up and down no matter what you do. I’m not worried – I’m quite positive that the next great ones are coming.
3) The biggest problem, bigger than the fame, and much bigger than the lack of young superstars long-term, is the injuries. The tour has reduced the load to help fix this very issue, and yet still we had it as bad as ever this year. Here I don’t have any explanation, but I do have a smidge of hope. Why? Well, when we talk about the old veterans dominating when they’re healthy, let’s consider that if they were the ones who were healthy, injuries wouldn’t seem nearly as bad. And of course, they’re old, so their bodies are naturally in rougher shape. And of course, this is the Serena generation where all of them have shown a tendency, probably reinforced by each other, for taking large amounts of time off. I think that when this generation finally gets pushed off into the sunset, injuries aren’t going to feel as ubiquitous.

2010 Player of the Year
Alright, so moving onto a bright side for the analytical sports fan, because of the chaos created by players not playing, we really get to see how arbitrary the process of ranking tennis players is. We’ve got 3 basic elements to how people judge players:
1) WTA ranking
2) Prize money ranking
3) Performance at the big tournaments (which right now typically means the Grand Slams)
Wozniacki rules the first, Clijsters rules the second, Serena rules the third. So if you’re a voter for a Player of the Year award, who do you pick? Well, there’s no one right way to look at it, but I’ll show you mine.
First off, I don’t care much for the WTA rankings. I like to know what they are, and I might factor them in if I’m otherwise torn, but I don’t see them as something that has much direct importance to the players. The WTA designs the point system it uses for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that its goal is to make the non-Grand Slam tournaments as important as possible.
By contrast, the cash don’t lie. Pay people enough money to win your tournament, and every player is going to try their best to play in your tournament and win it. So if I were to just use one factor to make my ranking, I’d use the prize money. To give a bigger picture of the prize money situation this year for singles players, here are the top 3, which as you probably would expect, are the 3 players already mentiond:
1. Kim Clijsters $5,019,440
2. Caroline Wozniacki $3,886,512
3. Serena Williams $3,707,007
Now, the last component is not something to be ignored though. In fact, it’s the only thing a lot of people use to judge players. I reject that simplistic mindset, but try to incorporate the basis behind the mindset into my thinking. What matters most to people over the long haul, is the player who consistently wins on the biggest stage. Everything else is nice, but if players kept playing exactly the same way over the course of many years, and one player emerged as winning by far the most Grand Slam tournaments, everyone would consider that player to be the best – and so Serena will get the nod from a lot of people here.
In a comparison with Wozniacki, I completely agree. Despite Wozniacki making more money, she not only didn’t win a major tournament, but appears to be falling into the trend of a player who underperforms when it matters most. Bottom line is that everyone would respect her more if she’d had Serena’s year. Without hesitation, I rank Serena ahead of her for 2010.
But what about Clijsters? First off, look at how much more money Clijsters made –that’s not a small gap. Remember how much time Serena missed this year. Last year she won 50 matches, this year she won 25. This has to be kept in mind, a vote against Serena this year is by no means a vote against Serena at full strength. Now consider the “does well in big matches” argument. Obviously Serena’s great when it count, but since Clijsters came back from retirement with baby in hand, so is she. The two players have only played once in that period, it was at a major, and Clijsters came out on top. I don’t see any basis for lifting Serena ahead of Clijsters bad on that.
And so, my 2010 women’s tennis Player of the Year is Kim Clijsters.
Now, what I’m talking about there with big match success, goes right into people’s counting of slams to who’s best, and Serena’s got the edge there 2 to 1 in 2010. I said before that I’ll agree that a player who over time would earn the most majors is the best, and Serena’s got many more majors than Clijsters, so doesn’t that all add up to putting Serena at the top? No, because we’re talking about comparing 2010 Serena vs 2010 Clijsters over many years, not what these players actually did in the past. This is particularly important because Clijsters was known as a choker when she was younger, and that’s clearly not the case any more.
Serena didn’t win more majors than Clijsters in 2010 because she was better on the best of stages. The two never even played this year (which goes to show what a strange year it was). Things just happened the way they did, because well, things happen. Unless you believe that Kim Clijsters is really incapable of playing of fantastically except on the hard court of Flushing Meadows, then there’s no reason to think that a healthy Clijsters couldn’t win multiple slams in a year. Serena’s slam edge this year is thus important, but not enough to throw out everything else that happened.

My top 5 for the year:

1. Kim Clijsters

2. Serena Williams

3. Caroline Wozniacki

4. Vera Zvonareva

5. Francesca Schiavone

2 Responses

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  1. I’d narrow it down to Serena alone. Between her injuries, not playing the smaller tournaments, and inability at the French Open, she either dominates or isn’t in the picture at all. The latter hurts the value of the grand slams and smaller tournaments without her, as well as the overall ranking and money list. It also hurts the possibility of major rivarlies. If for example Serena and Sharapova played in Finals as often as Federer and Nadal in their prime, it’d have been huge for the sport. When Venus and Serena played in grand slams often they outrated the men’s game. Unfortunately injuries to all of them have prevented it

    I believe the best outcome for the sport would’ve been to Serena either to be there as consistently as Federer/Nadal or a female player like Steffi Graf, or not to be there, which would open the door for other dominant players and rivarlies between them (such as the Henin and Clijsters era in the mid 2000s)

    As it stands having the league’s dominant player inconsistently playing is the worst outcome for the sport. And of course Sharapova’s lack of play hurts just as much if not more

    I agree the sport will likely rise when the next healthy generation comes in but I worry about the women’s players who burn out by their early 20s.

    Dr Mufasa

    November 7, 2010 at 3:14 pm

  2. A reasonable viewpoint which has to be considered at least partially true.

    I don’t think laying it all on Serena’s right. Venus, Henin, Clijsters, Hingis, Kournikova – they all pulled stuff like this. The rampant problem though is glaring, and Serena, as the best player of her generation, is bound to take the brunt of the heat.

    Is a sport better off without unreliable superstars? Ah, now that’s a deep question. It’s definitely the case that people have a very hard time comparing different generations of players, so under the right circumstances, it’s easy to see that coming true.

    In the case of the Williams sisters specifically though it’s tougher, and I’ll be blunt: Because their black.

    I don’t mean to belittle the strife that people face because of their race, I know it’s very real, but in terms of crossover appeal, being African American in a white sport is a very good thing. This is absolutely the bulk of the reason why Tiger Woods is an icon for the ages, and neither Federer or Nadal comes close.

    On the other hand though, another twist to the racial divide makes the erratic play of the Williams sisters even more devastating. Because of the general assumption that blacks are better athletes, this behavior helps play into the idea other tennis players are counterfeit champions, as well as the idea that if there’s real drama in a Serena match it’s because it’s not the “real Serena” playing. Those ideas are not at all conducive to promoting interest in the sport.


    November 8, 2010 at 1:20 am

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