Women need a true champ, not starlets

May, 14, 2010
5/14/10
10:50
AM ET
It's kind of fitting that the WTA website is currently running a premium home page feature called "Ana's Best Moments." Click on it and you'll see that it's a rundown of the top 20 moments in Ana Ivanovic's career, and fine moments they are for the 22-year-old Serb.

But that's not even remotely close to a meaningful story about Ivanovic these days. We all know that her game went over a cliff shortly after she won her first and only major in Paris a few years ago, and it hasn't come back since. Meanwhile, her career as a pretty face and spokesperson has steadily risen, and the WTA is clearly trying to capitalize on that.

Ironically, you could read the Ivanovic retrospective as the obituary of a once-promising champion. It's a puff piece meant to turn a sow's ear into a purse. Sure, it touches the feel-good gene. But it only reinforces the idea that the WTA Tour is getting more and more deeply mired in an identity crisis from which the sport may emerge broken beyond repair.

There's one thing women's tennis needs, and badly: It needs a champion who cares, and who can win a lot of tennis matches. And it needs one right now.

Serena Williams, although one of the greatest of all women players, is good enough to win Grand Slam titles while playing, in effect, part-time. Venus, oddly enough, has played a fair amount and really shined, but not in the tennis capitals of the world. Her performance at every major but Wimbledon has tailed off. Maria Sharapova has injury troubles and, fittingly enough, related identity troubles of her own -- what is she, a brand or a player? And if she's a player, how come nobody ever sees her playing?

Ivanovic has disappointed, but you at least get the feeling that she's trying -- although all of that dreaded "crossover appeal" stuff they've got her wrapped up in tends to diminish the sense that she's dedicated to tennis. Jelena Jankovic, Ivanovic's Serbian countrywoman, can't get her head screwed on straight. But among all the women, she's the one who seems most comfortable being … a tennis player.

The WTA is paying an enormous price for failing to produce a woman who seems all champion, all the time. The tennis player as international starlet/celebrity has been with us forever, only that isn't how the women's game has advanced -- not ever. It has advanced through great rivalries and the omnipresence of gritty, dominant, day-in-and-day-out champions.

The WTA Tour is a mighty big entity. A girl with a top-10 ranking, a few Grand Slam semis on the resume and a taste for doing photo shoots is not going to carry it. The WTA advanced on the backs of Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. The Williams sisters once were part of that sisterhood, and so was Justine Henin (too bad she bailed, although it's nice to have her back). But neither the sisters nor Belgian stars Henin and Kim Clijsters are playing and/or winning enough to re-energize the women's game.

If you look at the contrast between the ATP and WTA games during this long European swing on clay, you'll appreciate what I'm talking about. Granted, Europe has never embraced women's tennis -- not the way the U.S. once did, as an almost moral crusade. The WTA is lucky that the French Open is coming up, because people care about Grand Slam events. But we've seen this spring how little most fans on the Continent care about women's tennis in general, even when a few of the stars show up to play -- and lose. I'm convinced one of the reasons they lose is because it's obvious that even the few-dozen people who turn out to watch their matches hardly care. They probably got the tickets from some guy at work.

Right now, Sam Stosur is the closest thing the WTA has to a good role model. She has won 21 of her past 24 matches, and so what if she doesn't have the talent of a Serena or the touch of a Justine? She has worked her tail off and has bagged almost all of her winnable matches; she's not ashamed to admit she's hungry for success and focused on her day job. You get the feeling she's all about the tennis, and that's the one thing both the WTA and its players fail to realize: Fans, the media, tournament promoters most love the player who obviously cares.

The WTA sorely needs a dedicated, dominant player whose interest, first and foremost, is winning major titles. Who wants to be part of the championship sisterhood? The WTA needs a face, and not just another pretty one. It's already awash in those.
Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for more than 30 years, most of them with TENNIS.com and TENNIS Magazine, where he is a senior editor and author of the popular blog, Peter Bodo's TennisWorld. A two-time WTA writer of the year, Bodo has also written numerous books, including Tennis For Dummies (with U.S. Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe).

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