Tuesday January 19th, 2010

Tour officials would have you believe that the 2009 Grand Slam season was another compelling, fun-filled display of women's tennis, but it was hardly that. It was a mess. If there was an overriding theme, it was something along the lines of "I'm An Emotional Wreck."

In the year of the meltdown, even Serena Williams lost her mind. The world No. 1 ranking took on the components of a curse, for nobody seemed worthy of the honor. All of which leads us to the Australian Open, currently in its early stages, and the hope that four comeback stories -- Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova (already dismissed, regrettably) and the scorned Serena -- will restore glory to the sport.

Recall, for a moment, how badly the sport disintegrated last year. Dinara Safina became the most fragile, flighty No. 1 in women's tour history, routinely imploding at the hint of a crisis. The details are far too painful to recount here, but suffice it to say her performances ranged from the hopeless (losing 6-1, 6-0 to Venus Williams in a Wimbledon semifinal) to the bizarre (beaten by 226th-ranked Zhang Shuai at the China Open). As Safina said after one particularly disturbing episode, "There are moments when you want to break all the rackets and send everything to hell."

Ana Ivanovic, once the darling of the sport, hasn't won a tournament anywhere on tour since the 2008 French Open championship revealed her devastating, inside-out forehand in full bloom. She drifted aimlessly across last year's landscape, experiencing problems in fitness, confidence and all-court movement, and admitted that the first time, she felt pressure -- and an ability to handle it. At the majors, we last saw her losing in the first round to Kateryna Bondarenko at the U.S. Open, after which she admitted, "My mind and my body are not at the same level. I don't trust myself like I did before."

It wasn't so long ago that Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, contemporaries from war-torn Serbia with remarkable personal stories to tell, were the future of women's tennis. Regrettably, Jankovic has joined Ivanovic in the land of the borderline-irrelevant, having failed to reach the quarterfinals of any major last year. And it's not just the result sheet. Jankovic is delightfully engaging, a born entertainer, but it seems there's always something wrong. After losing to Melanie Oudin at last year's Wimbledon, Jankovic explained a medical timeout this way: "The physio came out and asked me, 'Do you know your name?' I just saw blurry. I didn't know." As one tennis critic pointed out, "Wait -- you didn't know your name and you kept playing? This melodrama is veering into self-parody."

Toss in the forever-searching Elena Dementieva (still without a major title and due to play Henin in the second round of the Australian) and Svetlana Kuznetsova, still prone to collapse despite a pair of major titles, and you have a deeply flawed group descending quickly out of the tennis elite. So let's make a deal: Trade the above-mentioned five players for Clijsters, Henin, Sharapova and Serena. Get those four into as many major semifinals as possible, plus any bold young players who'd care to join the party.

In the wake of Sharapova's desultory first-round loss to Maria Kirilenko at the Australian, some wondered if she's still in the process of recovering from shoulder surgery. She's finally serving pain-free -- with her familiar, original motion, no less -- but her movement, never terrific, holds her back against quicker players. It seems too late in her career for her to become a sharp, instinctive presence at the net, so how do her weapons really stand out? Increasingly, opponents view Sharapova as very rich, very beautiful and quite vulnerable.

What will bring Sharapova back to the foreferont, most believe, is her competitive nature. She's a fighter, tough under pressure, far stronger mentally than the Fragile Five. And it's a pleasure, by the way, to see no sign of her intensely annoying father, Yuri, in the stands. It seems he finally decided that Maria has her life, and he's got his own, leaving him back in Russia to attend to business. People are particularly excited about this development in Melbourne, where the father-to-daughter communication became so obnoxious two years ago. (Yuri topped it off with a throat-slashing gesture after Sharapova defeated Henin, prompting Mary Carillo to note, "When we call this 'the happy Slam,' this guy didn't get the memo.")

As for Clijsters, who returned from retirement with a family, boundless confidence and an even more fundamentally imposing game than before, nothing spoke louder than her first-round rout over Canadian qualifier Valerie Tetreault. Clijsters has reached the peak of her powers, a vision of the tennis ideal, and without expressing the least bit of bravado, she knows it. People figured her return would be great for the tour, but they couldn't have predicted such a quantum leap.

Henin can only hope that tennis brings her the same measure of self-satisfaction. While Clijsters got married and had a kid, Henin took time off to learn some things about herself and a marriage that didn't work. It's still too early to gauge the full residue of her comeback, but she dropped some encouraging hints in an epic, three-set loss to Clijsters, her old Belgian rival, in the recent final at Brisbane. There's no question that her two finest qualities -- a ferocious will and one of the most beautiful one-handed backhands ever seen in the sport -- were sorely missed.

Television interviews revealed Serena as a calm, self-assured presence heading into the Australian, and that's about as surprising as the sunrise. If people expect her to repeat her profane outburst at the U.S. Open, or show any sign of poor sportsmanship on the court, they haven't followed her career very closely. She's temperamental and somewhat unpredictable, a far cry from big-sister Venus' solid block of granite, but both girls were raised to absorb bad calls as they come -- sort of like setbacks in real life -- and stay in the present. Remember Serena's 2004 quarterfinal against Jennifer Capriati at the U.S. Open, when a series of unbelievably bad calls took her down (and led to the arrival of instant replay)? She was furious, but didn't make a scene -- during or after the match. That's Serena in essence, and the one we'll see from now on.

As Carillo arrived in Melbourne to work the tournament for ESPN2, she noted via e-mail, "So far, no woman player has had a nervous breakdown, but perhaps I'm being premature -- there may be some crying in a hotel room nearby. But, yes, I'm hoping that the squad of past No. 1s -- Sharapova, Clijsters, Henin -- will bring some mental and emotional fortitude back in the ranks. Justine has long been a displayer of that. Maria won this tournament two years ago in absolutely ruthless fashion. And Clijsters is just so damn pleasant and optimistic; her energy is pure oxygen around here. Serena will be on her best behavior, and even when she has to play her way into form physically, her mind and athletic heart allow for that. It's likely that if she loses, it won't be to herself. So let's go! Start throwing up balls! Without throwing up!"

And so it goes. On a tour covering roughly 364 days of the year (sometimes it seems that way), there is beauty in the comeback, the revitalization, a break from the grind. It just might be the key to survival.

San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Bruce Jenkins, winner of numerous United States Tennis Writers' Association writing awards, will write on tennis for SI.com throughout the year. You can also find him here.

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