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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.

Billie Jean King, who co-founded the Women's Tennis Association and remains among the sport's more forceful advocates, concedes that women's tennis "is not in a great place right now." But King argues that the sport always goes in cycles; this particular down cycle, she said, is due more to freak injuries and bad luck. She also suspects it's exaggerated by media, whom she believes delight in pointing out injury or frailty (real or perceived) among female athletes.

"I just want everybody to be healthy at the same time because we really have depth if we can get them all playing," King said. "We've had a very bad year. But it's not going to be like that forever."

Veteran coach Pat Etcheberry, who trained such champions as Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic, says it's difficult to predict mental toughness, and it's nearly as difficult to teach. But he's clear about who had more than any athlete he has seen.

"Justine [Henin]," he said at once. "No question. Losing was not an option. She didn't get intimidated by anybody. She realized that it was up to her."

In the men's game, Jim Courier was much the same, added Etcheberry, who now works with the USTA's Player Development Program and is a consultant to the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park.

"They knew they weren't the best athletes, or the strongest or the fastest," Etcheberry said of Henin, a diminutive 5-foot-5, and Courier, who lacked a single devastating stroke. "Their talent was to push themselves to another level. So in their case, if you measured just one category and said, 'Will they be the best in the world?' - not the case. But that's not counting the toughness. The heart. The willingness to fight."

Asked what accounted for her ability to play her best in finals (an ability she acquired over time), Navratilova said: "For me, it was because that was exactly where I wanted to be. It was exactly what I had worked so hard for. Being in a final was something to cherish, not dread."

Andrew Walker, the WTA's senior vice president of global marketing and communications, says he would stack the mental toughness of today's female tennis pros alongside the best of any era.

One difference to bear in mind, Walker notes, is that today's players are under far more pressure than their predecessors in terms of media attention, bigger purses and greater sponsor commitments.

"The competition is tougher than ever," Walker added. "And the race for ranking points in tougher than ever. ... I don't think it would be fair to point to any one or two matches and say that it's a sign that our players are not mentally tough now."

As Walker views it, women's tennis is in the midst of an intriguing time precisely because of the churn atop the rankings - with Henin, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina, Serena Williams and Wozniacki takings turns at No. 1 in the last three years - and the mix of fresh and familiar faces contending for titles.

"Having a battle for the No. 1 ranking is always a good thing for the sport," Walker said. "Having people talk about who the No. 1 player is - and who the new No. 1 player might be - is good."

But to many fans, it didn't make sense that Russia's Safina ascended to No. 1 in 2009 without winning a major. The story line repeated itself this fall, when Wozniacki took the No. 1 ranking from Serena Williams despite failing to reach the final of a major all year.

As for high-profile finals that have fallen flat, Walker said: "Sports is unpredictable; that's what makes it intriguing. Not every match is an epic match. That's not unique to women's tennis or men's tennis. Certain Super Bowls are amazing, and others are duds. That's the nature of sports."

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