Saturday, June 11, 2011

The tennis planets are once again aligned

The drought has been terrible. The people have suffered so. In the absence of the great ones, we have had to settle for a number of pipsqueaks. The pipsqueakiest of them all planted herself atop the rankings and ran down every two bit tournament from Charleston to Morocco just so she could remain at #1. But put her in a major event with serious contenders and she would fold like a wet paper bag. It has been a shameful display of lacking.

Of course in the absence of the luminaries, we got the chance to discover some other fresh talent. I discovered that I quite like the pluck of Georges, Wickmayer, Vesnina, and Peng Shuai. Na Li delivered on the promise shown when she challenged Serena at the 2010 Aussie Open, and made it to two Slam finals, winning one definitively. Kvitova made us smile and Petkovic made us dance. And the USTA tried its’ all to promote Sharapova as the resurgent White Hope who would fill the space left gaping by the absence of the great ones.

More than anything else, their absence gave many cause for such hope. Players could continue to stuff their bellies with ├ęclairs and still win matches because being a top athlete was no longer a requirement for success. This is what happens when the great ones go away. Standards drop, and mediocrity rules. A 40-year-old mother returned to the tour after not playing for years – and actually won an event! There’s no shame in seizing an opportunity.

Of course some who struggled before the great ones went away continued to struggle in their absence. When your head is all messed up and your game is as confused as Safina’s has become, it really doesn’t matter if either Venus or Serena are on the tour. And Safina is not the only one battling her mental demons. Azarenka continues to confuse, screaming with blazing energy one minute and completely flaming out the next – in between bizarre fainting spells and other hysterics.

Clijsters’ body seems to be betraying her. And I hear that her husband has since found a coaching job so who knows how that will affect her hunger. And Ivanovic continues to try, really hard, for a set and a half. And then she seems to decide that it is all just too much bother, too much sweat, and she just deflates. The world of women’s tennis has been in a tailspin, as tornados rage and nuclear reactors slowly melt.

But the planets have now realigned. The world of women’s tennis has been righted. The tennis planets have been righted on their orbit. The luminaries are once again at center. The tennis conversation now revolves around the return of Venus and Serena to the women’s tour.

I’ve missed Serena’s intensity. I’ve missed the freeness of her smile when she is happy. Heck I’ve even missed seeing Venus’ raggy weave held together for dear life with bobby pins. It’s funny the things you notice when the great ones go away.

There is beauty in the coincidence of their returning to the same grass event – the Aegon Championships at Eastbourne – a significant warm-up event for Wimbledon. Venus’ has been rehabbing a hip which she injured at the Australian Open this year. Serena stepped on a piece of glass sometime after Wimbledon last year, and later suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. The great ones have been tested and have survived. Their return means that they are both feeling fit and healthy. They would not be here otherwise.

It is ironic that Venus will be facing Petkovic in her first match back. Petkovic is the last woman she played before withdrawing from Australia. Serena will face Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian with the unusual game who actually has two wins over Venus. Two solid opponents who should challenge the sisters. But of course I never count out either Venus or Serena. If tradition holds, they should be facing each other in the finals.

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