You know that part in Sleeping Beauty where the evil Maleficent casts a spell on Rose (or Aurora) and gets her to touch the spindle, sending her into a deep sleep? My 12-year-old daughter long ago outgrew Sleeping Beauty. I, apparently, have not, because that climactic scene came to mind as I was watching Angelique Kerber crash out of the French Open, the latest and ugliest loss in a months-long slide for the German. Winning a major or claiming the number one ranking—or even just being within reach of either—appears to have the same debilitating effect on some women players that pricking her finger on the spindle has on Rose. Just look at Kerber. Just look at Garbine Muguruza, who claimed last year’s French and has been struggling ever since. Think about Simona Halep and Aga Radwanska and Genie Bouchard. Or the recently retired Ana Ivanovic.
What is it with the women’s game these days? That’s a pointed question, so let me stipulate up front that I am writing this not out of hostility to the women’s game. Quite the opposite: I love the way the women’s game has evolved—the concussive groundstrokes, the increasingly powerful serves, etc. Watching, say, Coco Vandeweghe at this year’s Australian was enthralling. What frustrates me is the inability of so many talented players to fully realize their potential or to maintain a high level of play once they do break through. This is not a new problem, but it is becoming a glaring one in the absence of Serena Williams. Whether or not Williams returns to tennis, there is now a huge opportunity for one or more players to step up and take control of the women’s game. But based on what we have seen lately from players like Kerber, Muguruza, and Halep, they are more apt to shrink from the moment than seize it.
True, Kerber won two majors last year, and Muguzura claimed her first. Petra Kvitova has won a pair of majors, ditto the stalwart Svetlana Kuznetsova and the soon-to-be-back Victoria Azarenka. Even if you take the Williams sisters out of the equation, it would be incorrect to describe the current generation of WTA stars as underachieving. And obviously, it isn’t easy to win majors when Serena is in the draw. Talk about a crowding-out effect: Dating back to 2012, Serena won 10 of the 21 majors in which she appeared and reached the finals of two others. In the Serena era, everyone else is competing for scraps. In a recent interview with Christopher Clarey of The New York Times, Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said of Azarenka, “I always thought that if Serena hadn’t blocked her path, she would have lots of grand slam titles. Serena really hurt her, because Azarenka was very, very close to acquiring so much confidence that she would have been unstoppable.”
And yet, even with Serena standing in their way, even with Venus in her prime, a couple of other players managed to carve out historically significant careers. Justine Henin won seven grand slam singles titles (and had a 6-8 head-to-head record against Serena). Her compatriot Kim Clijsters retired with four. Maria Sharapova has five and might yet add to her total. Perhaps that will happen with the current crop of pretenders, but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the moment. The term “wide open” has been used to describe the women’s field at this year’s French, and we’ll undoubtedly be hearing it again come Wimbledon. In the current context, it is a polite way of saying “kind of a mess.” It seems the likeliest beneficiary of Serena’s absence will be her sister, who turns 37 later this month. But as fantastic as it would be to see Venus win another Wimbledon or US Open (or a maiden French Open title), that Venus is the first name that comes to mind speaks to the anemic state of the women’s game.
Serena has only been out of action for four months now. But in just that short time, one thing has become clear: a GOAT-level champion can paper over a lot of problems in a sport. Serena’s march to 23 majors has made it easy to overlook the fact that women’s tennis hasn’t had a serious, sustained rivalry in years and that her latest cluster of challengers are plagued by issues of confidence and consistency. Hopefully, Serena will return to tennis next year. But sometime in the not-too-distant future, she will retire (ditto Venus). This summer is an opportunity for someone, anyone to step up and stake a claim to being the game’s next big thing. Maybe it will be a rejuvenated Muguruza, or perhaps someone like Madison Keys (when I interviewed her former coach Thomas Hogstedt a few months ago, he told that he was sure Keys would be winning a major soon; hopefully, the pain she experienced in her left wrist during her loss yesterday at the French—the same wrist that was operated on back in December—won’t persist and mess up her summer). Ideally, a couple of claimants can emerge over the next year or so. It would be awesome to see the WTA get its own version of the Big Three or Big Four.
There’s so much to like about women’s tennis these days: the ball striking and the athleticism has surely never been better. What’s missing is sustained drama at the very top. The game needs a couple of players who can provide that for the next four or five years. Let’s hope it finds them, soon.