Saturday, August 9, 2008

It’s the Hingis era all over again – minus the creativity

Sometimes women’s tennis really pisses me off. Really.

I go through periods of having to convince myself that women tennis players have every right to earn the same amount of money as men. I have argued long and hard that it is fair for women to play the best two sets out of three and still earn the same pay as men who play the best of five at major events. I have argued in favor of different but equal [and of course, not far from my mind is memory of the doctrine of separate-but-equal that was used to discriminate against Americans of color, and the thought unsettles me].

And then along comes someone like Jelena Jankovic who makes me question everything I believe in and makes me wonder if it’s all really fair.

You see, Jelena is about to become the world No. 1 player. And if you don’t know her, I would not be surprised. And your not knowing her would probably have everything to do with the ordinariness of her game. Jelena gets balls back. That is what she is the best at doing. She is a retriever. She has no shots worth selling the farm for. Her serve is ordinary. Her baseline returns are ordinary. Her vollies – when they occur – are breathtakingly ordinary. She even looks ordinary – and I recognize that that is an unforgiveable statement, but sometimes women’s tennis really pisses me off. Really.

Jelena is on the brink of becoming No. 1, but, in my opinion, she doesn’t deserve it. Don’t get me wrong – she has most certainly earned it. She has earned it the same way Hingis earned hers before she decided that cocaine was more important to her than tennis – by being the most consistent player in the WTA.

And you have every right to attack me for my double standard because I defended Hingis and am now attacking Jelena for the same achievement. I’d like to believe that the difference is that I respected Hingis’ incredible talent and creativity. Hingis was a crafty player who had the uncanny ability to anticipate her opponents and come up with a tremendously creative response. I miss seeing her play.

Jelena, on the other hand, gets the ball back. She wins by making you have to hit another shot. She is the queen of long boring rallies. She has zero creativity. She rarely ever does anything unexpected or original with the ball. She is as predictable as Brett LeFavre’s countless retirements. And she is about to become No. 1, not for being the best tennis player on the planet, but because she gets balls back. And that pisses me off. Really.

Jelena’s ascendance was clearly facilitated by the departure of Justine Henin. After being spanked by Dinara Safina and possibly recognizing that her last opponent was on the break of superstardom, Ms. Henin fled tennis. And apparently left a void that ordinary players like Jelena Jankovic are suddenly qualified to fill.

Contrast this with Dinara Safina [right]who, after beating Henin, has gone on to experience success after success. After Dinara made it to the finals of the French Open, I saluted her tremendous accomplishment. It bears mentioning that Dinara has just clinched the US Open Series, and is now a favorite for winning the US Open Grand Slam. She is the hottest player in women’s tennis right now.

Jelena Jankovic, on the other hand, has never even played in a Grand Slam Final. I kid you not. She has won six career titles. And she is a mere eight points ahead of her country woman – Ana Ivanovic – who faced a tired Dinara Safina in the finals of Roland Garros. [Hingis, on the other hand, won every Grand Slam except the French, where she made it to the finals against Iva Majoli.]

Jelena will be the 4th No. 1 player so far this year. She was preceded by Maria Sharapova, and Ana Ivanovic, all in quick succession. This has never occurred before in the history of women’s tennis. And if Kuzetnova and Venus Williams decide that they really want this, it is mathematically possible for each of them to also get a turn at being No. 1 before the year is over. And this all because Henin decided that she had had enough of tennis and abdicated the No. 1 throne.

But in her defense, Jelena Jankovic has earned the No. 1 slot. She did not cheat her way there. She did not manipulate the system. She admits cheerfully that she hates practicing, so she keeps herself and her game fit by playing a lot of tennis. She enters the most tournaments and amasses the most points. And for this she has earned the title of becoming the 18th No. 1 player in the history of the WTA.

When told of her pending promotion, here was Jelena’s typically cheerful response: “When you get older, at least one day you can say you were No. 1 and no one can take that away from you.” And she’s right.

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