In tennis, it’s important to emphasize the following point, lest this discussion veer in an unwanted direction: Much as duration of match and quality of match have little to do with each other, qualities such as parity and depth are value-neutral. They require circumstances in order to be seen as positive or negative.
A division in team sports can be tough and balanced, but if every team is barely above .500, that’s not a “toughness” or “balance” worth desiring.
A league can be top-heavy and lack parity, but if the four or five best teams in the league are all well above average, it matters less that teams 6 through 14 aren’t that special. It’s all relative.
Therefore, what follows should not be seen as a measurement of women’s tennis relative to men’s tennis, especially since the women have generally been better than the men over the last few years of major tournaments. The quality of 127 matches at a women’s major has usually eclipsed the quality of 127 men’s matches since 2013, and with the new generation of men’s players stagnating as we speak, it’s not as though the men’s game has much to say about its future.
Yet, on day two of Wimbledon in 2015, the main story — loudly conveyed by a couple of results — is that women’s tennis has to wonder what lies ahead. This isn’t a question of 2016, because Serena Williams will still be doing what she does. This isn’t a question of 2018, because Maria Sharapova will still be competing. This isn’t a question of Wimbledon, either, since Petra Kvitova is now in position to take care of business in the bottom half of the draw. This is about the next decade, the 2020s, when the stalwarts of the present day meet the end of the line, or something close to it.
You’ve probably read some gloomy forecasts about the men’s game once Roger, Rafa and Novak (and perhaps Andy Murray) leave the scene. The women’s game might not be in the same amount of trouble. A year from now, younger players could rebound after a 2015 season in which pressure has fallen quite heavily on their shoulders. However, that rebound is no sure thing. To be even more precise, the point of emphasis at the present moment is that for some heralded players on the WTA Tour, there’s now a lot more to rebound from.
Plenty was said about Eugenie Bouchard at the French Open when she crashed out early, so her first-round loss at Wimbledon on Tuesday should not be seen as a moment of crisis. She was already immersed in a tailspin on European clay, so it’s not as though a crisis state has been freshly created on the lawns of the All-England Club. Moreover, the revelation that Bouchard was playing with an abdominal tear should put her loss to Duan Ying-Ying in perspective. Bouchard needs rest and recuperation more than anything else, and if she’s a mentally refreshed player in 2016, this 2015 season can (and will) be forgotten.
The much bigger story on day two of The Championships — which underscores this moment of deepening concern for the long-term future of women’s tennis — was Simona Halep’s three-set loss to Jana Cepelova.
A few months ago, Halep’s season stood in a relatively solid position. The Romanian had won Indian Wells and put up a very good fight against Serena Williams before losing in the semifinals of Miami. If the pressure of living up to high expectations seemed to oppress Halep in the Australian Open quarterfinals, when she meekly bowed out against Ekaterina Makarova, Halep appeared to have learned her lesson in the Indian Wells-Miami swing. She didn’t win a European claycourt title, but she made the semifinals of Stuttgart and Rome. Not great, but not rubbish. She entered the French Open without a steady upward trend to lean on, but she was far removed from Bouchard’s downward spiral. Her season was hardly transcendent, but it was marked more by success than failure.
Then came Roland Garros, and a second-round loss to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The loss was discouraging in itself, but Halep had the ability to chalk up that result to a bad matchup (and her inability to adjust to it). Lucic-Baroni had dismissed Halep from the 2014 U.S. Open with a big-hitting approach, so Halep had the ability to slot that repeat defeat in a specific category: nemesis.
Now? Halep really has nowhere to hide.
Halep won the first set against Cepelova, and for any top player — regardless of gender — that should be half the battle in a first-round match at a major unless movement is severely compromised. Halep did get a visit from the trainer late in the first set, but it’s not as though she was a shadow of her former self in the final two sets. (The epiphany: Halep’s former self wasn’t that imposing to begin with. The first set felt more like an escape than a clean kill.)
Even at the end, Halep — trying to stay in the match with Cepelova serving at 5-3 — appeared to be on the verge of breaking back. This was, after all, how Lucie Safarova stayed in her match against Alison Riske on Monday before winning in three sets. Yet, Halep — fighting her forehand all afternoon — watched Cepelova dig out of trouble to seal her biggest victory since a win over Serena Williams in Charleston, South Carolina, in April of 2014.
Halep once again lacked answers against a player she should beat. Her endless changing of coaches this season has been both a source and manifestation of confusion in her game and her mindset. After the French Open, it was fair to say that Halep’s career had hit a little speed bump, a modest slump. Now, it’s still fair to say that, but if you wanted to go a step further and say that Halep exists in a Bouchardian state of crisis, you’d certainly have more ammunition.
The reality of the situation is stark, regardless of whether you think Halep’s career is merely going through a phase or exists in a state of pronounced peril: Two women who reached major finals in 2014 — and who faced off in the 2014 Wimbledon semifinals — are both out before the second round. This magnifies the larger point about women’s tennis referred to earlier: Where are the players beyond Serena and Sharapova to fill in the gap?
Consider the eight finalists at 2014’s four major tournaments for the WTA:
Li Na is retired. Dominika Cibulkova is coming back from surgery, but she is out of Wimbledon, and moreover, she lost early at the U.S. Open last year. She’s done very little to back up that run in Melbourne a year and a half ago.
Halep and Bouchard are gone, as you know. Caroline Wozniacki has endured a rough 2015, and while she advanced on Tuesday, her prospects are very uncertain after a less-than-convincing first set against Zheng Saisai.
This leaves Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova. Serena is Serena. Her greatness across all surfaces and tournaments is unquestioned. Sharapova did make the finals of this year’s Australian Open, but that marked her first quarterfinal-or-better showing at a non-French Open major since the 2013 Australian Open. Kvitova is a threat at Wimbledon, but not anywhere else. She hasn’t reached the quarterfinals or better at any non-Wimbledon major since the 2012 French Open, when she made the semifinals.
Let’s put the matter plainly: It’s not time to panic if you’re a Women’s Tennis Association executive… but WTA leaders certainly have reason to be noticeably more concerned about the long haul than they were even two months ago.
Remember 2014, when young players burst into the spotlight and, moreover, largely sustained their results from one major to the next? Remember 2014, when parity coexisted with quality and women’s tennis was putting its best foot forward at every turn? Remember 2014, when the future of women’s tennis looked as bright as the weather in this first week of Wimbledon?
No, everything’s not falling apart… but everything that’s becoming more brittle and tenuous needs to find new strength and signs of a genuine recovery in the next 12 months.
If we’re sitting here at the start of 2016 Wimbledon, and both Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep are crashing out of SW19 before Manic Monday, we’ll have to wonder where the long-term future of women’s tennis is truly headed.
You don’t have to even agree with that statement to find some validity in it; you can merely allow yourself to be shocked that the notion has even the slightest shred of legitimacy. No one expected such a sentence to be written in early July of 2014.