The latest edition of Wimbledon provided plenty of off-court controversies and sideshows, but Attacking The Net wants to keep the focus on the court. What were the most important developments of the past fortnight in suburban London for the members of the WTA Tour? Let’s take a look:
5 – THE ART OF THE ESCAPE
This Wimbledon tournament — both genders — featured a very striking and specific parallel: Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the two champions, both survived one very close shave. Serena barely avoided losing to Heather Watson in round three, and Djokovic was up against it early in set five of his eventual win over Kevin Anderson. It’s a fact of life on tour: Successful tournaments — championship tournaments — will almost always involve one match in which a player just isn’t clicking, or has to absorb an opponent’s best punches. Serena and Djokovic did this, and that’s why they’re popping the champagne this week.
For a number of other players on the WTA Tour, this ability to escape just doesn’t surface as much at the majors. Simona Halep can’t seem to wiggle out of situations in which she’s uncomfortable, something she did a lot more in the first seven months of 2014. Angelique Kerber and Carla Suarez-Navarro can’t replicate at the majors what they achieve in lower-tier events. Yet, this inability to master the art of the escape is best applied at Wimbledon in reference to Petra Kvitova.
The bottom half of the draw was wide open, with the defending champion having the table spread out before her. Kvitova, up a set and a break against Jelena Jankovic in the third round, appeared to be ready for the second week and another deep run at SW19. However, Jankovic caught fire on serve and watched her service games carry over to her return games. Kvitova found herself in a contentious third set, but the two-time Wimbledon champion certainly owned the resources needed to prevail.
If you’ve won Wimbledon twice, you’re a legitimately great player, but within the larger theater of sports, there’s enough room for many levels and forms of greatness. Serena’s level is one; Bille Jean King’s is another; Justine Henin’s is another; Kvitova will surely make the Tennis Hall of Fame one day, but the question is if she’ll get in at the level she currently occupies, or if she can rise to Henin’s level or a higher plateau before her career is done. She’s still only 25, after all.
At 4-4 in the third against Jankovic over a week ago, Kvitova responded to pressure in a manner which suggests she won’t make that steady climb in the annals of women’s tennis, though she does have the time to rewrite her story. A poorly-used challenge from a winning position robbed Kvitova of the ability to break for a 5-4 lead. Serving at 4-5, she wobbled, and Jankovic pulled off the biggest upset over the past fortnight.
The difference between two-major greatness and 21-major greatness can be expressed and found in many ways, but a central manifestation of that particular gulf in tennis is the ability to pull off a Houdini act. Serena did, Kvitova didn’t, and the rest is history.
4 – MUGURUZA, BACSINSZKY AND KEYS: THE ONES TO WATCH
Serena is slammin’ through the 2015 season at the majors. Maria Sharapova has a final and a semifinal to her credit. After those players, which WTA performers have turned in the next best sets of results at the biggest tournaments this year?
The answers can be arrived at using different measuring sticks, so let’s apply this standard: Which WTA players have reached the quarterfinals or better at two of the three majors played so far this season?
The names on the list and the brevity of the list might both surprise you: Garbine Muguruza, Timea Bacsinszky, and Madison Keys. Those are the only non-Serena, non-Sharapova players to go quarters-or-better at two majors in 2015, with the U.S. Open still to come.
Muguruza is only 21, but it’s already clear that she loves the big stage, a reason she — in a neat inversion of Angie Kerber — plays well at the majors and not as well at other tournaments.
Bacsinszky has become the unexpected breakout star of the season, rebounding from a period of deep doubt about her tennis abilities to produce a highly consistent season. No, it’s not Serena-level consistency, but Bacsinszky has achieved richly on all three surfaces and is a player worth trusting to make the quarters this September in New York.
The best thing about Keys is that she didn’t ever play free-flowing and overwhelmingly convincing tennis at Wimbledon. She survived based on determination and an ability to calm herself down in important moments. In a few years, Keys might be able to win matches such as the one she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals. This Wimbledon feels like a great learning experience for her; she just has to absorb and apply the lessons this tournament has offered.
Bacsinszky is 26, so her time is now.
For Keys and especially Muguruza, “now” doesn’t seem very far away.
3 – AZARENKA’S ASCENT
The reality of continuing to lose tough three-setters to Serena Williams must surely eat away at Victoria Azarenka. Yet, by reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals and moving up to No. 19 in the latest rankings, the former world No. 1 is continuing to put together her comeback from injuries that sidetracked her 2014 season. Given the small differentials in rankings points among players ranked 6 through 30, Azarenka — with a strong summer season on hardcourts, her best surface — could very realistically enter the U.S. Open in the top 12, maybe even the top 10. This will improve her draws in tournaments, and if she can avoid Serena’s quarter, she appears ready to become a semifinalist at the majors again. Should she avoid Serena’s half at the U.S. Open, her performance at Wimbledon should make her the early favorite to face Serena in the final.
If Serena does make the U.S. Open final in pursuit of the calendar Grand Slam, there’s no player who would give her more of a fight than Azarenka. The event of the tennis season — should it come to pass — would coexist with the best head-to-head matchup in women’s tennis.
2 – THE COMING CHAOS
Look at the new WTA rankings after Wimbledon, a tournament in which many members of the top 10 fell back to the pack instead of pulling away. Flux, upheaval, unpredictability, volatility, bumper cars — however you want to look at the matter, Wimbledon has revealed a WTA Tour in which stability and relentless consistency are not commonly found.
The U.S. Open Series — from the West Coast (Stanford) to New England (New Haven) — will be a heckuva lotta fun… and important.
1 – QUALITY AMIDST THE QUICKSAND
The WTA in 2015 is breaking the rules in a certain sense. The conventional wisdom in tennis holds that rivalries make for compelling tennis, and that proven elite players create more gripping theater. To a certain extent, those claims are true. Who wouldn’t like a modern version of Evert-Navratilova? Who didn’t enjoy life more when Serena and Azarenka played in major finals instead of quarterfinals or third-round matches?
It’s true that with the downturns endured by the likes of Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard, and with Caroline Wozniacki laboring through a tough season — far tougher than last year’s U.S. Open and WTA Finals suggested — the top 10 in women’s tennis is not a portrait of stability. This should mean that the quality of tennis suffered at Wimbledon, but that simply wasn’t the case.
Jelena Jankovic’s win over Kvitova was highly entertaining. All four quarterfinals were tense and highly competitive. Sharapova’s win over CoCo Vandeweghe was messy, but it still made for great theater. Keys-Radwanska offered a delicious contrast in styles, and the other two matches — Bacsinszky-Muguruza and Serena-Azarenka — were excellent. Serena-Azarenka was the WTA match of the tournament, and legitimately the best match of the whole fortnight in England.
One might prefer a little more steadiness in the top 10, but the WTA did outperform the ATP over the past two weeks.