It wasn't so long ago that the elite level of women's tennis was in chaos. Nobody had a clue what to expect at any time. Forecasting became an act of folly, to the point where your best call was to predict the exact opposite of what you actually felt.
The past few months, including the Olympics, have brought some clarity -- and that's a blessing for the game.
Things can only be wild and wacky for so long, before a tour completely loses its identity. Just as golf reached its peak in popularity when Tiger Woods ruled the sport and there was a very specific list of challengers, we now find Serena Williams back in complete command. And how's this for an order-restoring fact: The last three Grand Slam winners -- Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova at the French, Serena at Wimbledon -- were the three medal winners in London.
Perhaps it isn't a universal opinion, but Martina Navratilova has often said that the women's tour needs star power. She was delighted to see Sharapova reclaim the No. 1 ranking at Roland Garros, because "she's a superstar, and it's always good when a superstar is at the top."
The current rankings are a bit twisted, to be sure. Serena is so clearly the best player in the world, it's strange to see her at No. 4. That only adds to the intrigue of the American hardcourt season and Serena's fierce desire (no matter how much she downplays it) to be No. 1 by the conclusion of the U.S. Open.
It's also brutally clear that Serena's dominance has never been so evident. Azarenka and Sharapova are two of the biggest threats to her superiority (Agnieszka Radwanska being the other), and Serena simply took them apart in back-to-back Olympic matches revealing perhaps the greatest display of raw power ever seen in the women's game.
That's the point, though. People are drawn to the spectacle of an all-conquering powerhouse, whether it's Woods or Usain Bolt or the New York Yankees. It's a development that stirs passion, devotion and disdain in equal doses, to the television networks' great relief. That's the storyline for the next month or so -- can anyone take down Serena? -- and it will be fascinating to watch. (If you take a hard look at Williams' body of work, you'd have to think there will be a regression somewhere along the line.)
With all of that said, a two-year-old critique by Mary Carillo still carries the ring of truth. "In women's tennis there's no consistency," she told Inside Tennis. "Players come up and then they go away. You wonder, what was that? Was that an aberration? Too often, the woman rated No. 2 isn't playing well enough to be No. 1. You had people like Ana Ivanovic who were clearly not ready to assume that role, and it hurt them. They feel a certain insecurity about their station, and they just lose their way. So now you have all these head cases, and it just becomes a spiral."
Along those lines, people still don't know quite what to make of Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki, who currently hold the 5th, 6th and 8th world rankings. There are signs that Angelique Kerber, Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges, among others, are capable of a huge breakthrough, but in terms of undeniable mental toughness, the tour continues to lack depth.
Still, we should be grateful that Serena has fully restored her reputation, and that the likes of Azarenka, Sharapova and Radwanska won't be giving up the fight. You'd love to see the four of them in any set of semifinals. Why, you might even be confident enough to predict it.
Wrapping up the Olympics
? Nobody can touch this, and according to NBC's Rennae Stubbs (among many others), nobody ever will: Serena has singles and doubles titles in all four majors, plus singles and doubles gold at the Olympics.
? Winning a major is all about the moment. Check off the historical landmark, celebrate for a few days, then press on. An Olympic medal brings a deep-down satisfaction that can only stem from national pride. My favorite moment from the All England Club was the sight of Juan Martin del Potro falling to his knees and crying after he won the bronze-medal match against Novak Djokovic. It was all about Argentina and how the people felt back home. We may never see him quite so moved on a tennis court again.
Another good example: Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova going absolutely nuts when they clinched the bronze in women's doubles against the world's No. 1-ranked team, Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber. Kirilenko's unbridled shriek sounded like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert.
? Rankings aside, the reality: The prime-of-life Venus and Serena would take down any women's doubles team in the history of the game (although I'd love to see Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King together, each around 27).
? Message to Sharapova: Aside from dismantling both your game and your will power, Serena didn't make a sound when she struck the ball. That's how you play it.
? Wimbledon couldn't match this: a brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds for the Andy Murray-Roger Federer final. The day of their Wimbledon match couldn't have been gloomier and was driven indoors.
? For all the talk about radically different Centre Court crowds for Murray's matches, the difference wasn't that great. Craziness? Outright bedlam? Not a chance.
? Couldn't agree more with the sentiment offered by colleagues Jon Wertheim and Courtney Nguyen: Nothing beats a best-of-three-sets format, and yes, that includes the men.
? Mary Carillo seems to be everywhere in these Games: hosting NBC's late-night show, getting out to Wimbledon to call the women's final, coming up with endearing and hilarious features on James Bond and rock-band bagpipers. Somebody give this woman a raise.
? NBC managed to miss the best moment of Murray's celebration: leaping back onto the court, after visiting the Friends Box, and wildly pumping his fist. "Most fun I've had at any tournament," he said later, and it showed.
? Particularly enjoyed this comment during Pat O'Brien's harsh criticism (on Bravo) of the temperamental Ryan Harrison: "He was obsessed with the towel guys." Harrison heads for the towel after virtually every point, with no good reason. Whether it's Harrison, Rafael Nadal or anyone else, this nonsense has to stop.
? Can hardly wait for this: Murray against Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open.
? Every time Murray went to the net, there were nods of approval from the old school. He hit a backhand reflex volley against Federer (at 2-0 in the second set) that was nothing short of world-class, prompting John McEnroe to tell the NBC audience, "He should do more of that. He's got reach, he's got height, he's got feel."
? I wonder if any future Olympic tournament will be able to match the attraction of Wimbledon -- for players, fans and television interests. Will all of the top players be flocking to Rio in 2016? One could imagine a Davis Cup-like atmosphere in the proper conditions, but that doesn't seem likely at the moment. South America is best represented by Colombia (Santigo Giraldo, Alajendro Falla) and Argentina (Del Potro, Juan Monaco, Carlos Berlocq, David Nalbandian) in the rankings, with only Thomas Bellucci (No. 39) hailing from Brazil.
On the women's tour? Not a single South American player in the top 100.
? Is Azarenka cooler than we think? The Tennis Space asked Sloane Stephens which three tennis players she'd invite to a party, and Vika got the nod, along with Serena and John Isner.
? Marvelous take on Twitter from Andy Roddick: "OK, I'm listening to a radio show talking about football being in the Olympics. Umm, minor detail. No other countries play."