Ground beneath her feet

Published: August 4, 2011 - 15:19 Updated: July 22, 2012 - 15:29
With an outburst of classical and contemporary talent, International women’s tennis is becoming a realm of magical impossibilities
Sandeep Kumar Delhi
If Rafael Nadal had survived against Novak Djokovic at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon Final, 2011, he would have definitely not lost his number one crown. The irrepressible Djokovic crushed Nadal 6–4, 6–1, 1–6, 6–3 to win his first Wimbledon and also conquered the number one slot for the first time. Surprisingly, nothing of that sort happened in the women’s singles. Despite losing in the fourth round, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark held on to her top spot. She has been number one for the last 40 weeks, though, she is yet to win a Grand slam title.
Such is the fantastic situation in international women’s tennis that there is a new champion for every tournament. Predictably, there is no shortage of talent, ambition or world-class temperament; and yet, the results are contradictory. Now, in some sense, women’s tennis does not lack the power factor. There are young girls who are fast, lucid, unrelenting and powerful in their shots, they don’t want to lose, and they fight till the end; and yet, the only craft missing is consistency. Despite having good players, the epoch of dominance, which was once the face of women’s tennis, has lost its sheen.
Who can forget the dominant phase of Steffi Graph, the German legend who floated in the highest zone for a record 377 weeks and won 22 singles titles? Or the muscular legacy of Martina Navratilova, the delicate pre-eminence of elegant Chris Evert, and the excellence of Margaret Court and Billie Jean King? 
Much before November 3, 1975, when the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) computerised the ranking rating system, women’s world tennis had already witnessed the rise and fall of many athletes. Few turned out to be legendary while others failed to reach the top level, or hold on.
Before 1975, the number one seed was decided by individual performance in the Grand Slam. The twist in the episode began for the first time in 1884 when British Muad Watson, 19, won the first Wimbledon title. She was then rated as the first top player in women’s tennis history by ‘The pastime classification of British players’, complied by the British sports media. Britain was the only country which encouraged women’s tennis those days. 
Women’s tennis culture also began during the same phase in America, but was yet to gain prominence in Australia, Europe, or other parts of the world. British players were basically considered top-seeded players. With the onset of 20th century, for the first time, an American player was crowned the number one player by ‘The lawn tennis and badminton classification of British players and American and Australian visitors’ in 1905. 
May Sutton replaced Dorothea Douglass, the current British champion, and a new phase of American-British tennis struggle began for the topmost global spot. After World War I, other players from neighbouring countries, including France, Belgium and Denmark (also, Australia) started making their presence felt. French player Suzanne Lenglen and the American Helen Wills Moody were at centrestage for a long span of their careers.
In the early 1970s, with the entry of ‘greats’ like Australian Margaret Court and Americans Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, began the era of aggressive, hard-hitting, tactical and net-rushing game. There was also nuance, elegance and beauty, which Evert exemplied. Rivalry was at its peak between top singles player Court and a power game proponent like King, before Evert came into the scene and took over the reign with a certain lucid fluency. 
This was the phase when WTA came into existence and ratings were conducted in a precise manner. The WTA confined ranking points on a weekly basis on how players fared in the latest tournaments. In order to appear on the WTA radar, it was mandatory to earn points in at least three tournaments or a minimum of ten singles’ ranking points.
WTA rankings are based on a 52-week cumulative system. A player’s ranking is an outcome of her performance in a maximum of 16 tournaments. They include points from the Grand Slams, premier mandatory tournaments and other WTA championships which are played throughout the calendar. For Top 20 players, their best two results at Premier 5 tournaments (Dubai, Rome, Cincinnati, Montreal/Toronto and Tokyo) would also count. The winner of a Grand Slam earns 2,000 points, whereas the winner of a premier mandatory tournament earns 1,000 points.
After winning Premier 5, premier, international and other International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments, players could earn between 150 to 900 points. With approximately 10 major, 40 average and several minor tournaments played throughout the year, players could target top spots despite not winning any Grand Slam. Wozniacki has maintained a highly consistent record at other WTA tournaments; she has, therefore, held on to the number one slot, though she lacks the keenness to win in the 
Grand Slams.
Wozniacki is not the first player who has achieved this feat. Kim Clijsters was the first player to be ranked world number one in 2003 without having a Grand Slam title under her belt. She was at the top spot for 10 weeks. She later won her first Grand Slam US Open in 2005. Amelie Mauresmo reached the pinnacle in September 2004 for five weeks; she won her first Australian Open in 2006. Jelena Jankovic was the third player to repeat the feat in 2008 for just one week, and is still waiting to win her first Grand Slam. Dinara Safina of Russia, despite being the number one player for 27 weeks in 2009, could not win a single Grand Slam. 
Such is the fickle nature of the rating system that there have been other giant killers who also won Grand Slams, but were not able to hit the top slot. Jana Novotna, Anastasia Myskina, Svetalan Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Mary Pierce, Nadia Petrova, Elena Dementieva and Li Na (the latest Chinese sensation who won the Roland Garros, 2011) are some of the remarkable players in the current era.
With classically extraordinary players like Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus), Kim Clisters still in business, and young talents like Samantha Tsosur, Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki throwing a genuine challenge to the stalwarts, the war for the best female tennis player of the decade would be interesting in the days to come. As of now, clearly, for the finest of them, the sand is constantly shifting on the ground beneath the feet, in clay, hard or grass courts. 
From Khanum Haji to Sania Mirza
Quite in contrast to the alluring, unassailable feats in world tennis, Indian tennis saw its first female champion in the name of Khanum Haji, who won the first ever Grass Court National Championship of India, held in 1946. Despite the huge pool of talent at the national and state levels, Indian women always struggled to make an impact in the international arena. 
After Haji, the other big name was Nirupama Mankad, wife of former Test opener, late Ashok Mankad. She was India’s top ranked tennis player between 1965 and 1978, winning the national championship seven times. Then came Nirupama Vaidyanathan, first to enter the second round of a Grand Slam. She beat Italy’s Gloria Pizzichini in the 1998 Australian open, first round. She reached a career high ranking of 162.
In 2003, with the arrival of Sania Mirza, there were great expectations. With her powerful forehand strokes, she defeated high ranking world players to become the first Indian player to enter the top 30 WTA rankings in 2007. She won one singles WTA and 14 ITF titles in a short span, before, tragically, going down the radar. Injuries too stalked this young, hugely talented and gutsy player.
Currently, overcoming injuries, she is number three in world doubles, a big feat. She was runners up in the French Open, 2011, and hit the semi finals in this year’s Wimbledon. She also won a mixed doubles Grand Slam with Mahesh Bhupati in the Australian Open, 2009, and was also the runner up in the same event a year back. In non-International tournaments, partnering Leander Paes, she won the Gold medal in mixed doubles at the Qatar Asian Games 2006. 
Apart from Sania, no other girl could achieve similar feats. There are competitive players like Rushmi Chakravarthi, Shikha Uberoi and Ankita Bhambri, but they lack the firepower and aggression to compete at higher levels. 
Indian tennis lags behind some of the poorest nations in the world. At the junior level, our boys and girls can compete with the best in almost every sport. However, when it comes to the senior level, where capabilities are tested, we fail miserably. This shows that it is not the lack of talent that bogs down our athletes; somewhere along the line, the absence of proper training, funds and infrastructure creates big obstacles. The fact is, apart from cash-rich cricket, there is no authentic sporting culture for any other sport in India. And tennis is no exception.

With an outburst of classical and contemporary talent, International women’s tennis is becoming a realm of magical impossibilities
Sandeep Kumar Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews