2012 - Women's tennis: Finally false dawn's are over as vacuum ends
It would be easy to write an Aussie Open report eulogising over the wonderful Men's tournament which made us wonder at what humans can achieve!
However, I choose to focus on the state of the women's game which for so long has suffered from a power vacuum left by a generation that prevented the natural accession process. I speak of the space left by the early retirements of Henin and Clijsters, the injuries and earlier lack of interest by the William's sisters to play full schedules and the shoulder surgery that affected 3 years of Sharapova's career.
Henin's return was short-lived and Kim although successful is based on a limited schedule. All the above left the door open for No 1's to emerge based on consistency, who could not learn their trade fully by constantly challenging the best....having to improve and find ways to beat genuine legends of the game. Instead the reduced schedules and departure of two top players prematurely allowed workers and unfulfilled talents such as Jankovic, Ivanovic, Safina and Wozniacki to inherit a status before they were ready. This created pressures on players who had not earned the right, through no fault of their own, to achieve the No1 spot having not learned to consistently to beat the generation of players ahead of them. It has been left to the new generation to set their own standards, to find its new superstars that set the bar for the next generation, girls who can show that they can beat Serena, Maria and Kim when they play and hold off the rest to win Slams.
Step forward Kvitova and Azerenka! These two girls will win multiple Slams if they remain healthy and give Wozniaki a target rather than being the target before she was ready and ensure that any player that gets by them has earned their stripes. These two I believe will emerge as the leaders of a generation and fill the vacuum that plagued the tour. This is a massive boost to the game because Kim, Maria and Serena will fight like hell to still win Slams, but they are now the challengers, no longer the only big beasts in the jungle.
What can one say about the men? I will offer an opinion that the top 2 players at the end of the year will be Nole and Andy. Rafa I felt was on his limit in the final and Novak was on his physical limit but not game limit. Rafa has to find more consistent length on his forehand and a little height and more width on his backhand crosscourt if he is to stay in contention with Nole and Andy. He found the flattened backhand cross cutting the sideline a few times, but it looked high risk and netting it too often with too many short forehands undid him in the end.
Novak and Andy own that backhand and their forehands flatten out with some height to keep length better than Rafa whose technique makes it a real challenge. Andy mentally played the semi like a champion in waiting and this mental grip needs a little more practice to get the consistency of Novak and Rafa. He showed he was prepared to suffer mentally and physically in a match as much as he does in physical training off the court. For the first time I truly believe he will win a Slam because the others smell a competitor willing to go to the depths of his mental and physical reserves to win. I salute Rafa as a mental giant, a man who truly gives it all and then humbly accepts defeat as a necessary hardship of a winner.
There is no finer example of a pure competitor in sport. Novak is proving to be equal to this task and Andy will follow. Roger, so long the setter of standards is in the twighlight, and as the nemesis of so many players who can easily say "if I had not played in the era of Roger, what could have been?", Roger may now be in the position of saying "if not for Rafa or Novak, what could my Slam record have been?"
There is no shortcut in this sweet but brutal sport. I feel so grateful to be involved, to be a witness to a few truly wonderful eras from Borg, Vilas, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl to Becker, Edberg then Sampras, Agassi followed by the emergence of Federer alone (Safin failed to ignite a rivalry) until Nadal created one and now Novak. Throw in a few outstanding players like Wilander, Courier, Ivanisevic, Rafter, Hewitt etc and wow what a legacy the sport of tennis possesses.