Can anyone take control of this crazy game? As the women’s tennis moves to China en route to the tour’s end in Singapore next month, will we witness more confusion and anarchy?
That’s been the sport’s prevailing mood ever since Serena Williams went on maternity leave after winning the Australian Open at the beginning of the year. Just when you thought things couldn’t get more confused, they did.
Six weeks before the final of the US Open, Sloane Stephens was ranked 957. She’d been off for 11 months with injury, four of them on crutches. And of course, she won the thing: the fourth woman to win a grand slam title in 2017.
Sloane Stephens at the US Open, 2017
Practically all the leading players will make it to China for the tournament, each one trying to bring her own notion of stability to this turbulent year. Not that the year before was much calmer: since Williams lost out on the chance of a calendar-year grand slam in the 2015 US Open, the nine available slams have been won by six different players.
Tennis, more than any other sport, is about dominance hierarchies. The rankings matter. They are constantly reinforced and occasionally subverted by the routine of head-to-head challenges.
And if you read about animal behaviour, you learn that among us primates, male hierarchies tend to be volatile and changeable, while those of the females are relatively stable. That’s traditionally reflected in tennis. Martina Navratilova dominated the sport, then Steffi Graf, then the Williams sisters and latterly Serena on her own.
But with Serena temporarily out of the picture, the sport abandoned any idea of stability. That makes it a wonderful opportunity for someone. But who? Any player with the game and the will is eligible, but no one has reached out to grab it.
Every time a fresh face wins a slam we say: yes, she’s the one, get used to her because she’ll be at the top for a long time. And then someone else wins the next slam. When Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia won the French Open this year, it seemed obvious that she was the next big thing. But she went out in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, which was won by Garbiñe Muguruza, a Venezuelan-born Spaniard who plays a steadier sort of game.
So then Stephens had to confuse things further with a tumultuous tournament in New York that ended in victory over her great mate Madison Keys.
French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko
Meanwhile, back in the men’s game, Rafael Nadal won two slams and Roger Federer won the other two. You know where you are with results like that.
It would be fun if Johanna Konta of Britain could step up, but so far she’s stuck at a level just below the game’s leaders. She went out in the first round in New York, but has an opportunity to set things right in Wuhan. Her hard-won on-court serenity is now her great strength, and it got her to the semi-finals at Wimbledon this year, so she’s not far away.
What of Serena? Will she come back and reclaim her crown? She turns 36 this week; motherhood and the long lay-off may inspire her to a triumphant return – or she might just reckon that she’s done enough.
Either way, she’s unlikely to be around for the entirety of the next decade. So there is surely a serial champion ready to emerge from the eager throng. But which one is it?
WTA Tennis: Wuhan Open is on Sun 6.30am, Mon— Wed 5.30am, Thu 7.30am, Fri 10.30am BT Sport 1