WTA Championships: tennis season winds down lacking an edge at the top

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 1:26 AM

When women's tennis caps its 2010 season with the WTA Championships in Doha on Tuesday, it will mark an anti-climactic finish to what has been a sub-par year for the women's game.

The field, billed as the top eight players in the world, will lack the sport's most decorated champions, Serena and Venus Williams, currently ranked No. 3 and No. 5 respectively. Sidelined by a freak accident and subsequent foot surgery, Serena hasn't competed since June. And Venus cut short her season this month, citing a nagging injury to her left knee.

Moreover, two of the season's four majors - Wimbledon and the U.S. Open - featured painfully lopsided finals. Kim Clijsters needed just 59 minutes to win her second U.S. Open, dismantling Vera Zvonareva, 6-2, 6-1. Wimbledon's final lasted just eight minutes longer, with Serena Williams claiming her 13th major, 6-3, 6-2, at Zvonareva's expense, as well.

And, as has been the pattern in recent years, the No. 1 ranking wasn't so much seized as it was inherited, with the hard-working Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark ascending to the top spot through a combination of her own persistence and the inactivity of former No. 1 Serena Williams, who played just six tournaments all year.

While the depth, athleticism and power in women's tennis may have never been greater, few of the current contenders (apart from the Williams sisters) seem to thrive on competitive pressure the way that former champions Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf famously did.

Evert retired in 1989 with a 1,309-146 record (a staggering .899 winning percentage). Graf won a record 22 major singles titles in 18 years as a pro. Navratilova amassed more major titles overall - 59, in singles, doubles and mixed doubles - than any player, man or woman.

And when each reached No. 1, she defended her claim with a lion's heart. Graf still holds the record for most consecutive weeks at No. 1 (186), followed by Navratilova (156) and Evert (113).

But that rare combination of competitive fire and mental toughness that defines champions seems to be lacking in the women's game just now, with a few exceptions. Too many top-ranked players have wilted when the pressure is greatest - playing phenomenal tennis to reach the finals of a major or the No. 1 spot but crumpling when it's time to win the title or defend the ranking.

Said Navratilova, an analyst for the Tennis Channel: "We've had that mental strength from Serena and from Venus; when she did get to the finals, I've never seen her play a bad match or a nervous match. But with a lot of the field, when they get to the final, they freeze. I've seen it time and time again. They just freeze. They don't compete, and they can't play."

It jumps out at Navratilova every time a player's toss on the service motion goes astray. That's a giveaway for an attack of nerves, she says, likening it to world-class golfers who suddenly can't sink a putt.

"It's a question of control," Navratilova, 54, said. "It's the little muscles that take over when you're nervous. When you're confident, the big muscle groups dominate."

Confident is how Italy's Francesca Schiavone played in claiming her first major in June - the 2010 French Open - playing the match of her life as she blasted winner after winner past Samantha Stosur. It was a thrilling example of fearless tennis when the stakes were greatest.

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