Of course the question is unfair. But what fun would this blog be if I stuck to asking safe and easy questions? I could for example ask who the greatest male player was for 2011. Everyone and the Tennis Chick would answer Novak Djokovic.
And indeed, Djokovic’s 70-6 match win-loss statistic for 2011 will withstand the strongest tests of history. Indeed, his record will likely remain one of the most impressive of all time, coming in as it does after Connors’s 99-4 winning spree in 1974, John McEnroe’s 82-3 record established in 1984, and Federer’s 81-4 season in 2005. And as impressive as Federer, Nadal, Murray, Raonic and Tsonga – to name just a few – have been this year, 2011 remains indisputably the year of Novak.
But if I asked who the most impressive female player was for 2011, well we just might come to blows. Some would say that it has been the year of Petra Kvitova. After all, she won Wimbledon as well the year-end championships among her six titles of the year.
But diehard Wozniacki fans would rightly point out that their player won as many tournaments as Kvitova during 2011, while amassing a record 63-match wins, and holding on to her #1 ranking. Of course such diehard Woz-defenders would do well to ignore the fact that her wins came under such dubious conditions as New Haven and Charleston.
Others would say that Li Na was the most impressive woman in 2011. After all, she made it to the finals of the Aussie Open and is now the defending champ at Roland Garros. Or should the honor go to Samantha Stosur who survived Scream-Gate at the US Open to post her first Slam win?
Or perhaps we should scan past the Slam winners and look at those who impressed us with their overall improvement in 2011. That list includes tennis ninja Marion Bartoli, Ms. Mental Fitness Vera Zvonareva, and of course such power-hitters as Sabine Lisicki and Andrea Petkovic. But if we are going to go second tier, is it fair to exclude the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska, both of whom showed in 2011 why they deserve to be ranked in the Top Ten? So many women, so many choices.
Some believe that the lack of a clear leader among the WTA women – as compared with the dominance of Djokovic on the ATP side of the fence – is proof positive that the ATP has enjoyed the more impressive year. And certainly ATP has a long history of singular dominance. If it wasn’t McEnroe, it was Sampras. And when it stopped being Sampras, it became Federer. And for a while it was el tiempo de Nadal. And now that Nadal’s game has been deconstructed, we seem to be in the era of Djokovic.
But by focusing on the issue of dominance, we miss appreciating the one factor that truly makes the ATP’s season the more impressive of 2011. It wasn’t the dominance – it was the rivalries that it produced as pretenders tried to knock the Great One off his throne. 2011 gave birth to some spectacular tennis rivalries that produced instant classic matches that will be watched for years to come.
Pick any match between any combination of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Tsonga, Murray, Ferrer, Fish, Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro, Raonic, Dogopolov, and Tipsarevic – to name just a few – and you will nine times out of ten witness simply brilliant tennis. 2011 has more than anything else, in my opinion, been the year of truly awesome men’s rivalries.
Which is not to say that the WTA has been lacking herstorically in either the dominance or the rivalry departments. For a while there, it was all Chrissy vs. Martina. And then it was Steffi vs. Monica. And then it became the Sisters vs. Everybody. And now it…well there’s no clear leader is there? It’s really any woman’s game right now, isn’t it?
By which I don’t mean to give the impression that the absence of dominance or reliable rivalries make the women less impressive than the men. In fact I don’t much believe in comparing these two at all, a point I have made before in other contexts. It’s like comparing chalk and cheese, I say. Men’s and women’s tennis are almost two different sports. I’ve written before about how ironic I find it that the men on the ATP with their sweet flourishes and delicate dropshots, seem far more to be the sons of Hingis, while the women remain hell bent on muscling up and beating down each other. What a thing!
But the comparison between ATP and WTA is also pointless because it risks missing a crucial difference between men’s and women’s tennis that bears highlighting. No I am not referring to the old debate of the Best of Three vs. the Best of Five. No I am done arguing about the whole Equal Pay thing.
What is impressive among the women is the cultural and ethnic diversity represented at the top of the sport. The top 20 women of tennis are from 14 different countries. The top 20 men in tennis hail from 10 different countries. There is more diversity in the women’s game, which means that women’s tennis attracts audiences from almost every country of the world. Now that is truly and deeply impressive.