USA will miss the Williams sisters immensely

By Online Editorial
Serena WilliamsWhen it comes to tennis, America is a superpower used to the sweet smell of success

Serena Williams

Guy McCrea reveals some startling statistics that go a long way to showing just how bare women’s US tennis is, barring the Williams sisters. Where do the problems lie and is there a fix?

When it comes to tennis, America is a superpower used to the sweet smell of success. The land of the stars and stripes has enjoyed decades of domination of the women’s game. For most of the eighties, American women comprised more than half of the year-end top ten.

Fast forward to the nineties and American strength proved just as great – as a whole cluster of ladies including Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati scooped the major trophies. Then shortly before the turn of the century – the Williams sisters arrived to help their nation’s domination of the sport in numbers. Even in 2001, America ended the year with five women in the world’s top ten.

But that’s when it started to dry up. The Williams sisters have continued to enjoy periods of domination; they have won four of the last five Grand Slam singles trophies – eighteen in all. But the last time a WTA Premier level singles title was won by an American other than Venus or Serena was when Lindsay Davenport triumphed in Zurich, way back in October 2005.

Of even greater concern for a country used to dominating in numbers is the real lack of American women in the top 100. No one from the United States besides the Williams sisters sits inside the top 60 – and only three Americans are even ranked between 60 and 100. One of those is veteran Jill Craybas – now surely on the cusp of retirement at 35 years of age.

Indeed, only two women under the age of 20 are among America’s own top ten players – 17-year-old Melanie Oudin (the world number 67) and 19-year-old Alexa Glatch (ranked at 102.) This is perhaps the most shocking statistic.

The simple truth is that America can’t rely on the Williams sisters to stay around forever and paper over the cracks. Serena is almost 28 and Venus 29 – in an era where top female players rarely compete past the age of 30. Add their many off-court interests to the mix and there is a real prospect that sometime in the near future, the Williams sisters will decide to retire. As things presently stand, American women’s tennis will effectively retire with them.

So why has it become this way for a nation so used to being at the top of the tennis tree? Well, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) must take some responsibility for their failure to develop talent. It became complacent in the nineties and into the turn of the century as the world tennis landscape changed, waiting for one of the independent American tennis factories (such as the famous Bollitieri academy in Florida) to churn out another Capriati.

Or failing that, the USTA hoped that another Venus or Serena would materialize from the inner cities – and so mask an inability to develop their own champions. But neither has happened.

In an attempt to play catch-up, the USTA poured tens of millions of dollars into building two national training centres two years ago. It also now has an elite player development programme in operation to try and nurture future professionals. But these initiatives are some way behind the top independent tennis academies in Europe and elsewhere that produce a conveyer belt of young talented players from foreign lands.

Even if the USTA development programme produces a potential young female star – there are more obstacles to success. Principally, the lack of ITF Women’s Circuit (lower level professional) events held in America compared with Europe. Fewer entry-level tennis events in the United States mean fewer opportunities for American players to try and improve their ranking.

Instead, US youngsters spend valuable time, energy and resources travelling abroad to compete. This is a real problem for those outside the top 100 – many of whom struggle to meet these costs without the sponsorship and generous prize money opportunities enjoyed by the higher ranked women.

Yes, there are more WTA Premier level events in America (8 out of 19) than anywhere else. But that is little use if there are so few Americans ranked high enough to get into them directly, and so stand a reasonable chance of winning a round or two.

The other problem standing in the face of any American female resurgence is the fact that professional tennis is now a global game. This makes it highly unlikely America will ever dominate again. Today Russia, together with the former Eastern bloc countries are the new superpowers of women’s tennis.

There are currently fourteen Russian women in the top 100 – led by top ranked Dinara Safina – to inspire their young to take up the game. While in Serbia, tennis has quickly become the country’s number one participation sport – thanks in no small way to the exploits of Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, who both rose from humble beginnings to hold the world number one ranking last season.

So, defending champion Serena (trading at odds of around 3.2 on Betfair) or twice former U.S. Open winner Venus (6.6) may well be the favourites to win at Flushing Meadows. But realistically, there are no other American women worth backing to lift the title in New York. However, there are a couple who could be worth backing to win a few individual rounds if they can get a favourable draw.

The pick of these is Melanie Oudin. She only turned pro a year ago, but the 17 year old is already ranked at 67 on the back of some good results this season. The most notable of these was her win at Wimbledon over former world number one Jelena Jankovic.

As a qualifier, Oudin reached the fourth round at SW19 – the youngest American to reach that stage since Jennifer Capriati back in 1993. Oudin also won three qualifying rounds to reach the Australian Open main draw earlier in the year. So the unseeded teenager might be one to watch on the markets on a match-by-match basis.

Elsewhere, out of the Americans given wildcards into the US Open main draw, Bethanie Mattek-Sands is most worthy of a mention. Well-known for her colourful on-court apparel, she was ranked as high as 37 in the world last season. But Mattek-Sands is now down at 122 and having to rebuild her ranking after only returning to the WTA Tour in March thanks to more than six months out because of back and hip injuries.

Still, she has won main draw matches at Flushing Meadows before and roared on by her home crowd, could well be worth looking at to win an individual round or two this year.

Reproduced with permission from © The Sporting Exchange Limited


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