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Kurt Streeter

Women's game is not in great shape

August 28, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- There's the usual talk at the U.S. Open about how women's tennis is in great hands, how it's better than ever because the players are stronger and hit the ball with speedier dispatch than ever before.

Nonsense.

All it takes is a clear head, a good memory -- and perhaps a few dusty tennis videotapes to pop in the VCR you've banished to the basement -- to see that the women's game is in trouble.

Remember when fantastic play could be counted on, year after year, Grand Slam event after Grand Slam event, from the likes of Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert? These days the women's game has a lot more depth. But nobody seems to want to grab the consistent kind of greatness we saw from that group of golden oldies.

Two of this era's best players, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, recently walked from the game in their prime. Those who remain treat the No. 1 ranking like an Idaho potato fresh from the steamer.

All year, a handful of players have passed the No. 1 ranking back and forth, or come close to it and then sprinted away faster than you can say "drop shot."

Does anyone really want the title?

Consider that of those who've been No. 1 this year, only Jelena Jankovic has reached the fourth round at each of the first three majors.

Consider, too, the fate of the 2008 major champions. Maria Sharapova is out because of an injury. Her shoulder appears ready to fall from its moorings. The others, Ana Ivanovic and Venus Williams, followed their wins with injuries that, even now, cast a dark cloud.

Something is screwy.

Maybe the players are overtraining. Maybe there are too many tournaments. Perhaps the lust for a one-dimensional baseline game is taking a physical toll.

Perhaps this new generation is addled by attention deficit disorder. Might that explain why the Williams sisters are so flighty?

Wednesday was warm and breezy at Flushing Meadows. A day without the overheated, swampy air so common here. Still, there was Jankovic, seeded second, so exhausted that she simply laid down on the court in the middle of her match -- for roughly half a minute.

"I was just tired," Jankovic said after her match, a way-too-close 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-5 win over little-known Sofia Arvidsson.

Jankovic, who could hold the top ranking after the Open, suffered a knee injury this summer, so she's not in top shape.

Still, when she told the media after the match, "I was so exhausted. . . . I was breathing hard and I didn't have the energy to get up," my mind raced to the greats of an era that unfolded not so long ago.

You can imagine an in-her-prime Navratilova lying mid-match on center court, and saying later that she lacked the energy to stay on her feet, just about as easily as you can imagine John McCain taking the stage at the Republican convention and doing a break dance.

Navratilova, Evert, Graf (even Monica Seles before a mad man put a knife in her back) all knew how to train, how to pace themselves, how to sustain focus week after week, year after year. That's how Evert made it to a record 34 major finals, and Navratilova to 32.

You've heard the whining about fatigue, the long grind this year and the Olympics. In 1988, Graf won every major and a gold medal at the Olympics in South Korea. Think she took some time off to relax and hang with the glam crowd? Nope. In 1989, she won every major but the French, where she took second.

I write this, dear reader, to jog your memory, in case the VCR is on the fritz. Also to arm you with an antidote best used when the powers that be say women's tennis is better than it has ever been.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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