Is Women’s Tennis finally about to bounce back?

By Online Editorial
maria sharapova

Is Maria Sharapova ready for a top 10 return? (Photo: Justin Smith)

Poor Grand Slam finals, a lack of depth and excitement on tour — the WTA Tour has copped plenty of criticism in recent years. Guy McCrea argues that the women’s game might be starting to bounce back.

Talk about a welcome change in narrative. Think back to 2009, and pretty much all the story-lines in women’s tennis were decidedly negative — poor quality matches, Dinara Safina at number one without a Slam and then breaking down under all the pressure. It was an annus horriblis for women’s tennis, summed up by a lack of standout moments — bar Kim Clijsters’ fairytale US Open success. But even that had a flipside, raising the question of how she could win a Slam in just her third event back on tour.

Whisper it quietly, but the early signs in 2010 suggest things may be on the up.

There are more exciting matches and more positive story-lines. Justine Henin is back and has already reached two finals this season, in Brisbane and at the Australian Open. Her Belgian compatriot Clijsters is also playing a full calendar this year and already has a WTA title to her name so far in 2010.

Serena Williams has defended her Australian Open crown and remains right where she belongs at world number one. And there is evidence that those who wrote off Venus Williams may have to revise their opinions. The seven-time Grand Slam singles champion is on a 10 match winning streak, having won WTA titles in Dubai and Acapulco in February.

Maria Sharapova might now even be showing signs that she is ready for a return to the top 10. Sure, the former world number one’s title victory in Memphis won’t cause those mentioned above to lose too much sleep. But the WTA Tour marketing department won’t mind. Sharapova’s rise back up the rankings is another positive headline to add to the mix.

All in all, the WTA Tour now has a pack of top stars in its ranks to interest the audience and contest the big prizes. January’s Australian Open final could not have been further removed from the lacklustre one-sided affairs of late. For the first time in what seems like an age, the women’s showpiece arguably provided more drama and was more competitive than the men’s final. The sight of two great champions in Serena and Henin going toe-to-toe provided such a refreshing change from the dross we have had to put up with in so many recent finals.

And at WTA Tour level, we might not see a better final this season than the all-Belgian battle that took place between Clijsters and Henin in Brisbane in the opening week of 2010. A three set spectacle decided on a tie-break, it had just about everything, as Clijsters survived a stirring comeback from her compatriot to win through in two-and-a-half hours.

Even off court, there’s better news for the women’s game. Rumours had persisted in recent months that when Sony Ericsson’s groundbreaking $88 million title sponsorship expired at the end of 2010, the telecommunications giant would not renew. But just on Monday, WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster silenced the doubters and announced a two-year extension to their existing partnership that will see Sony Ericsson become the lead global sponsor for the Tour.

Critics may suggest that this is a lesser deal that probably involves less money — since Sony Ericsson are no longer the title sponsors. But lead global sponsor is the same arrangement recently agreed between the ATP Tour and Mexican beer brand Corona Extra — albeit for a longer (five-and-a-half-year) duration and thought to be worth as much as $70 million. Both tours should be congratulated for securing these deals in the current global economic climate.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problem areas that remain for the women’s game. Top of the agenda should be how best to market the colourful crop of young players on the WTA Tour led by Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Yanina Wickmayer. It’s an issue the WTA would do well to address soon, as both Williams sisters are surely in the latter years of their careers, with other top 10 stalwarts such as Elena Dementieva also in their late twenties.

Some insist the youngsters can’t be as well known simply because they haven’t been around as long as their older peers. But tennis doesn’t work like that. Sharapova became a star at just 17 when she won Wimbledon. At its heart, the sport is a young person’s game. Wozniacki’s U.S. Open final appearance has helped – but neither she nor any of the other teenage starlets are household names yet.

The comebacks of Clijsters and Henin have bought the WTA Tour some time. How it uses the younger talent at its disposal will surely be crucial to any long-term resurgence in women’s tennis.

Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. © The Sporting Exchange Limited

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