Can worker Wozniacki rescue women's tour?
As top eight meet in Doha, world No 1 with limitless energy looks most likely to drag next generation out of Williams sisters' shadow
On the eve of their showcase end-of-season tournament the Women's Tennis Association unveiled a new logo. "The new mark," the governing body announced before yesterday's opening of the WTA Championships in Doha, "is designed to serve as a distinctive and modern reminder of the captivating athleticism and excitement that has driven the international popularity and growth of women's professional tennis and placed it firmly at the nexus of sport and entertainment."
A more objective observer, dispensing with the marketing language of corporate sport, might assess the current state of women's tennis rather differently. While the injuries that have kept Serena and Venus Williams out of this week's event are an unfortunate blow, the eight-strong field, comprising the year's most successful players, reflects the fact that the sport is still waiting for a new generation of champions to emerge from the shadows of the sisters who have dominated for more than a decade.
Only two of the eight competitors in Doha have Grand Slam titles to their name, Kim Clijsters having won the US Open in 2005, 2009 and 2010 and Francesca Schiavone having taken this year's French Open crown. Three of the last four players to hold the world No 1 ranking have not won a Grand Slam title and this week Vera Zvonareva has the chance to make that four out of five at the expense of Caroline Wozniacki, the current holder of the top spot. The field is completed by Sam Stosur, Elena Dementieva, Jelena Jankovic and Victoria Azarenka.
There has been a lack of serious competition at the top of women's tennis for some years now. Twelve months ago a corner seemed to have been turned – Clijsters had made a successful comeback to win at Flushing Meadows, Justine Henin was on the brink of a return, Maria Sharapova was working her way back to fitness after shoulder surgery and Wozniacki and Azarenka appeared to be on the brink of Grand Slam breakthroughs – but since then time has all but stood still. Henin's comeback was halted by an elbow injury, Sharapova continues to look well short of her best and Wozniacki and Azarenka still have to win a Grand Slam title.
Wozniacki is the best hope for the future, even if she has yet to find consistency at Grand Slam level. The 20-year-old Liverpool-supporting Dane lost to Clijsters in last year's US Open final, but the only other occasions when she has gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam event were this year in Paris and New York, where she lost in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.
An engaging personality who speaks six languages (Danish, Polish, English, Russian, French and Spanish) and understands plenty of others (including Norwegian, Swedish, Slovakian and Czech), Wozniacki has already won six titles and more than $3.2m (about £2m) this year. Although lacking the power of a Williams, Clijsters or Sharapova, she has brought grace and athleticism to the circuit, not to mention glamour as the model for Stella McCartney's tennis range.
The current world No 1, who took over from Serena Williams last month, also has a phenomenal appetite for hard work. Last year Wozniacki played 91 matches, more than any other female player, at 26 tournaments. In 2010 she has again led the way: if she reaches Sunday's final she will have played 80 matches this year.
Wozniacki's rivals defend her right to lead the world rankings. "She definitely deserves the No 1 position," Dementieva said. "There is no one who has had such impressive results this season. I think for sure she's going to win a Grand Slam sooner or later. She's only 20 years old, so it's coming." Clijsters, who knows what it is like to lead the rankings without having won a Grand Slam title, believes that Wozniacki "brings beautiful tennis to the tour".
The Belgian explained: "She has a game that's physically demanding. She's not like a Serena who will hit a lot of winners and aces. She really has to fight for almost every match she plays, which is a good thing."
Azarenka, a 21-year-old from Belarus, has yet to reach a Grand Slam semi-final but has a big game and may prove to be Wozniacki's biggest rival in the long term, although 23-year-old Ana Ivanovic has shown signs of a return to the form that brought her the French Open title two years ago.
Otherwise, in a sport where future champions have traditionally emerged in their teens, it is hard to identify many players of outstanding potential.
Jankovic, aged 25, is the next youngest player in the top 10, while Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, is the only teenager in the top 40. Earlier this month 40-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm beat two top 15 players, Stosur and Shahar Peer, on her way to the final in Osaka, in which she lost to 33-year-old Tamarine Tanasugarn.
If the shortage of emerging talent should give encouragement to the likes of 16-year-old Laura Robson, the fact that players are maturing later may also be down to the age eligibility rules, which the WTA put in place in an attempt to prevent "teenage burn-out". Martina Hingis won three Grand Slam titles before her 17th birthday, but under the current rules would not have been allowed to play in more than 12 senior events when she was 16.
In another positive sign, the women's game is starting to reap the benefits of the shortened season it brought in to combat the number of injury problems and subsequent withdrawals from tournaments by its leading players. While the men's season will not end for another month, the top women will now have a nine-week break from competition.
"I think it's very important for us to get some rest and then do good preparation for the upcoming season," Jankovic said. "Without rest, it's very tough to have a long career, because you're going to have injuries and problems."
The two biggest absentees in Doha this week, nevertheless, are players who have rarely played too demanding a schedule outside the Grand Slam events. And when the 2011 season opens in January it will be no surprise to see the Williams sisters leading the chase for the biggest prizes.
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