Tennis on the Distaff Side: U.S. Open Preview, Part II of III.

AI_by_John_Russo Ana Ivanovic. Photo by John Russo.

Much has changed in women’s tennis since the era of wooden racquets and Billie Jean King, for whom the U.S. Open’s home in Flushing Meadows, New York, is named.

Today, at most tournaments the men and women earn equal prize money.  (More on that controversial topic in a future post.)  Women can command lucrative endorsement contracts.  Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, both fashion and sex appeal currently play sizable roles in the marketing of women’s tennis.

The women’s game today rewards athleticism and power at the expense of grace and finesse.  In consequence, the highly entertaining serve-and-volley style of yesteryear is increasingly rare.

One sees quite a few double faults and breaks of serve today.  Whether that stems from individual players’ emotional fragility or from their failing to practice the serve, I cannot say, but service vulnerability often renders women’s tennis unpredictable and stressful to watch.

Screaming, shrieking, and grunting have become all too commonplace in the women’s game, as have ugly gamesmanship, catty sniping in the press, and diva-like behavior.

I have not enjoyed women’s tennis for most of the last decade because of the prevalence of screamers and divas.  I have hope, though, as a cadre of likable players moves up the rankings.

There are only a few favorites to win this year’s U.S. Open women’s title, but the cast of supporting characters is large and colorful.  Here is an introduction to the principal players. [Photos courtesy of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).]

Out of the Lineup

In New York, both the men’s and the women’s singles draws are missing current Grand Slam title holders.  For the women, two-time Slam winner Li Na of China (winner of the 2012 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open), is out with a knee injury.  In Li’s honor, and as a tribute to her irrepressible spirit, here is her victory speech at this year’s Australian Open, which is surely one of the most entertaining champions’ speeches in tennis history.

The Favorites

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are the most likely contenders for the women’s singles final on September 7.  Between them, they have won 22 Slams (17 for Williams, 5 for Sharapova) and three of the last six Slams.

Serena Williams

Nationality: U.S.
Age: 32
Ranking: 1
Height: 5’9″
Upside: Hard-hitting veteran and defending U.S. Open champion.  Fierce competitor.  When she is at her best, no one can rally with her.
Downside: Williams has failed to reach the quarterfinals at this year’s first three Slams and has a record of uneven results throughout the year.
Noise factor:  Grunts at varying volumes and pitches.  Uses her voice as an offensive weapon.

Maria Sharapova
Nationality: Russia
Age: 27
Ranking: 6
Height: 6’2″
Upside: Very powerful shots.  Great movement.  One of the toughest fighters on the women’s tour.  May lead the tour this year in “wins after dropping the first set.”
Downside: Does not always manage to intimidate her opponent into losing after she takes the first set. Has a terrible head-to-head record against Serena Williams.
Noise factor: Emits a horrific shriek whose volume she raises when matches are tight, as though she means to deafen her opponents into submission.  This usually works.
Update: Sharapova lost her Round of 16 match to current world #11 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark.

The Second Tier

Each of these women has made at least the final at one of this year’s three previous Slams, and each is great fun to watch.

Simona Halep
Natonality: Romania
Age: 22
Ranking: 2
Height: 5’6″
2014 Slam Highlight: Lost the French Open final to Sharapova in three highly competitive sets.
Noise factor: Very quiet player.
Update: Halep lost her third round match in straight sets to current world #119 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni of Croatia.

Petra Kvitova
Nationality: Czech Republic
Age: 24
Ranking: 4
Height: 6′
2014 Slam Highlight: Won the Wimbledon final over Eugenie Bouchard in a rout.  Played brilliantly.
Noise factor: In years past, shrieked loudly whenever she won a point.  Has broken that habit, to her great credit.
Update: Kvitova lost her third round match in straight sets to the current world #143 Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia.

Eugenie Bouchard
Nationality: Canada
Age: 20
Ranking: 8
Height: 5’10”
2014 Slam Highlights: Reached the semifinals or better in Australia, Paris, and Wimbledon.  Lost the Wimbledon final to Kvitova.
Noise factor: Not noticeable.
Update: Bouchard lost her Round of 16 match in straight sets to current world #18 Ekaterina Makarova of Russia.

Dominika Cibulkova
Nationality: Slovakia
Age: 25
Ranking: 13
Height: 5’3″
2014 Slam Highlights: Defeated Sharapova in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open.  Reached the final at that event, where she lost to Li Na.
Noise factor: Grunts occasionally.  Has an irritating habit of yelling to pump herself up after every point.
Update: Cibulkova lost her first round match in three sets to 15-year-old American wildcard Catherine Bellis.

Tough Outs

Each of these women is highly entertaining to watch, and each is capable of upsetting one of the favorites.

Agnieszka Radwanska
Nationality: Poland
Age: 25
Ranking: 5
Height: 5’8″
Notes: Relatively short for the Tour and therefore lacking in power, Radwanska wins through guile, variety, and speed.  Through sheer force of will and deft shot selection, she beat the defending champion Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals at this year’s Australian Open.  Nicknamed “Ninja” by commentators, Radwanska is one of the most enjoyable players to watch.  Here she hits a reflex volley, one of the most breathtaking shots in all of 2013.
Noise factor: Quiet.
Update: Radwanska lost her second round match in straight sets to current world #40 Peng Shuai of China.

Caroline Wozniacki
Nationality: Denmark
Age: 24
Ranking: 11
Height: 5’10”
Notes: A few years ago, Wozniacki was ranked #1 in the world by virtue of consistency and defensive skills.  Her ranking dropped in 2012 and 2013, but in the summer of 2014 she has exhibited terrific form.  She will offer stiff competition to anyone in New York.
Noise factor: Grunts, but not loudly.

Ana Ivanovic
Nationality: Serbia
Age: 26
Ranking: 9
Height: 6′
Notes: The 2008 French Open champion, Ivanovic has struggled in recent years with self-confidence.  This year she has found wonderful form, beating Serena Williams in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open and returning to the Top 10 for the first time in five years.
Noise factor: With every shot, emits a distinctive nasal, “Heh – ENH!” which, while not loud, is nonetheless tiresome.
Update: Ivanovic lost her second round match in straight sets to current world #41 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic.

Venus Williams
Nationality: U.S.
Age: 34
Ranking: 20
Height: 6’1″
Notes: A seven-time Slam champion who has struggled with injuries and health concerns, Venus Williams has recovered her best form in the summer of 2014.  At Wimbledon and at an event in Canada two weeks ago, she played some of the best and most exciting women’s matches of the entire year.  She will pose a formidable challenge to anyone at the U.S. Open.
Noise factor: Loud and variable.
Update: Williams lost her third round match in three sets to current world #14 Sara Errani of Italy.

Known Unknowns

These women are former Slam champions who for various reasons come into this year’s U.S. Open in questionable form.  Given a clear draw and playing at her best, any of them could find herself in the final.

Victoria Azarenka
Nationality: Belarus
Age: 25
Ranking: 17
Height: 6′
Slam Highlights: Australian Open Champion in 2012 and 2013.
Notes: Has not recovered her best form after an absence from the Tour due to a foot injury.
Noise factor: With every shot, Azarenka emits a unique whistle-like shriek that brings to mind incoming artillery fire.  The shriek stops if her ball hits the net.  It is because of Azarenka (and Sharapova) that many tennis fans wish for selective muting capabilities on their televisions.
Update: Azarenka lost her quarterfinal match in straight sets to current world #18 Ekaterina Makarova.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
Nationality: Russia
Age: 29
Ranking: 21
Height: 5’81/2″
Slam Highlights: 2004 U.S. Open Champion, 2009 French Open Champion.
Notes: Form is uneven, but competitive fire will probably carry her through at least a few rounds.
Noise factor: Loud, but no louder or more irritating than many of the male players are.
Update. Kuznetsova lost her first round  match in three sets to current world #82 Marina Erakovic of New Zealand.

Samantha Stosur
Nationality: Australia
Age: 30
Ranking: 25
Height: 5’9″
Slam Highlights: 2010 French Open finalist. 2011 U.S. Open Champion.
Notes: Stosur’s powerful play and strong skills at the net enabled her to defeat Serena Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final.  Since then she has struggled with confidence.  If she can maintain belief in her skills, she is capable of upsetting almost anyone.
Noise factor: Not noticeably loud.
Update: Stosur lost her second round match in three sets to current world #49 Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.

Quote for Today

“We’re not friends.” – Eugenie Bouchard, in response to a question about Maria Sharapova.


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