Clearing out the notebook with thoughts on the Asian swing, Serena Williams and more.
1. An opportunity, not a referendum: I catch myself getting excited about the fall Asian swing every year and very rarely does it live up to the hype. No player entry list is reliable given the number of high-profile withdrawals — just yesterday Serena and Venus Williams pulled out of the WTA’s mandatory Beijing tournament because of some well-timed injuries/illnesses — and no win or loss is particularly insightful because the cloud of mental and physical fatigue lingers over the competition. Is Petra Kvitova in a slump because she lost her first match to Petra Martic in Tokyo? Was Milos Raonic’s loss to Jarkko Nieminen in Bangkok much of an upset? It’s hard to gauge because we just don’t know where their energy levels are right now. I’m inclined to believe the players aren’t at their best when the tours hit Asia.
Perhaps the better way to look at this part of the season is that Asia represents nothing more than opportunity. Power through this portion of the season — regardless of ranking — and players can pick up a slew of points that will stick with them through 75 percent of the next year. That’s a huge advantage as we begin to look at next season, and players’ ability to rack up points through Asia and the European indoors can keep their ranking high regardless of performance next year. One prime example is Donald Young, who stayed in the top 100 for much of this year despite going virtually winless. And then there’s Agnieszka Radwanska. She won Tokyo and Beijing last year, amassing 1,900 points that helped her grab the final spot at the WTA Championships. The late-season surge also set her up to leap into the top three this year.
While some players may see Asia as a complete waste and would rather skip it or sleepwalk through it, others should be making the most of the opportunity to pick off the low-hanging fruit.
2. The Race to Istanbul: The WTA Championships are less than a month away and seven players still have a shot to qualify for the final four spots. (Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Radwanska and Serena Williams have already earned berths.) Based on the numbers, Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani should qualify over the next few weeks, which leaves one spot open among four players: Li Na (4,277 points, including Tokyo), Sam Stosur (3,966), Marion Bartoli (3,470) and Caroline Wozniacki (3,280). With 1,000 points up for grabs in Beijing, along with tournaments in Moscow, Linz, Osaka and Luxembourg over the next few weeks, this one could get close.
3. Serena doesn’t want No. 1 … yet: Before we get into this discussion, let’s set aside the basic wringing of hands: Yes, Serena has two Grand Slam titles this year and six titles overall, and she has beaten everyone on the WTA Tour. No, she is not the No. 1 player in the world. Don’t blame the ranking system, blame Serena. The ranking system didn’t make her lose in the first round of Roland Garros, skip Indian Wells, lose to Wozniacki in the quarterfinals of Miami, skip all of the Middle East tournaments, lose in the fourth round of the Australian Open or skip the entire fall season last year. In other words, Serena’s superlative season didn’t start out that way, and while she may be the best player of the last three months, she hasn’t been the best player over the last 12 months, which is what the ranking measures.
Having said that, if Serena isn’t overly concerned about being No. 1 this year, why should anyone else? Her decision to withdraw from Beijing makes the prospect of catching Azarenka at the WTA Championships even tougher. With Sharapova, Azarenka and Radwanska all defending a load of points in the first part of the season in 2013, it’s likely Serena will take over sometime then. But still. After everything she’s been able to do this year and with No. 1 within striking distance, I really thought she’d make the push in Asia to catch Vika. Now, depending on what Azarenka does in Beijing, there’s a part of me that doubts Serena will even play Istanbul. Serena Williams: Always a roller coaster.
4. The overrated Big Man: ESPN.com’s Howard Bryant’s piece on the steadiness of the not-so-big man was a great read for perspective. It got me thinking. How much of the love affair with the Big Boy Game is a result of the Big Four’s vise-like grip on the tour? Their impossibly consistent dominance at the Slams and Masters tournaments is numbing. What’s the point of paying attention to the early rounds when there’s very little doubt as to who will be playing on the weekend?
The Big Boys, with their explosive forehands and steep-angle serves that rain down like rockets, are sexy. They have weapons that wow. The Juan Martin del Potros, John Isners and Milos Raonics of the world overshadow the tour’s steady workmen — who, by and large (no anti-pun intended), actually win more — because they’re freaks. You know that gaping look of fear and wonder plastered on the face of an innocent bystander when she sees Peter Parker scaling buildings and shooting his webs? That’s me when Isner kicks a second serve ace off the line.
Oddly, it’s the unusual stature that sustains our belief. They offer something very few do, which makes us think, sometimes rightly but often wrongly, that they have a better chance of beating the Fantastic Four than anyone else. Maybe in this golden age of tennis superheroes, we’ve come to believe that it takes a freak of nature, an alien, a novelty, to break through. Del Potro is the only guy outside of the top four to win a Slam since 1903 (my estimate). Or maybe the hype and the hope is overblown. After all, Lex Luthor, the mortal with nothing more than a maniacal drive to take down Superman, was the man who found kryptonite.
5. OK, I take back my Party Rock jokes: Credit where credit is due: When the USTA announced that Redfoo, ubiquitous member of the band LMFAO, was investing in a $50,000 Challenger tournament, starting a tennis apparel company and possibly coaching a junior tennis player, I may have rolled my eyes. But based on his involvement with the Party Rock Open in Las Vegas this week, there’s a lot to like about a celebrity — any celebrity — using his marketing power to put an event on the map. I’ve seen so many people tracking the happenings in Vegas this week that I had to stop myself to make sure it wasn’t actually an International-level WTA tournament. Sure, it’s kitschy and thematic, but there’s something to be said about a tournament that doesn’t take itself too seriously, goes out of its way to entertain fans and treats the players well. Props.