Thursday March 22nd, 2012

Both hampered by injuries, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters have been two of the top women to beat during an era of inconsistency in women's tennis. (Getty Images)

The Toss last week took a look at a player who's struggling in 2012, Mardy Fish, and whether he can turn his season around. Over 75 percent of the readers thought that he wouldn't get back to his top form from 2011.

This week, tennis writer and blogger Chris Oddo joins the Toss to look at two great players on the women's side who are also hoping to pick things up in 2012.

Today's Toss: With a specific focus on the Olympics and remaining majors, who will finish the 2012 season with better results: Serena Williams, or Kim Clijsters?

Courtney Nguyen: For the purposes of this debate, I think it's important that we limit our criteria to the majors and the Olympics because, quite frankly, who knows what either of these part-time players will plan to do with the remaining portion of their schedules? Nor do I think either would mind: They play for the big titles and leave the others for the rest of the Tour to fight over.

Serena vs. Kim feels like a virtual toss-up, but I'm going to take Kim for no other reason than the sense of urgency. Clijsters has made it clear that 2012 will be her last season on Tour. She'll retire (again) afterwards and most likely return to her quest of being the world's most perfect mom. But until then there's work to do, knowing that this is her last shot at not only the Olympics, but the French Open and Wimbledon as well, I suspect her laser focus will pull her through.

Let's not forget, she made the Australian Open semifinals on a bum ankle. Had she come through in that third set against Victoria Azarenka, the 2012 WTA season would look a whole lot different than it does now. Bad ankles befell both Kim and Serena in Melbourne but it was Clijsters who had the game that could fight through the injury and still beat Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki, and push Azarenka to three sets. Serena on the other hand fell in the fourth round to Ekaterina Makarova. It's hard to read into either of these results given we don't know the comparative severity of the injuries, but I've always believed Clijsters' game, though less powerful and dominant, could withstand more ups and downs in her form. Kim can play with more margin, which makes her less vulnerable to upsets.

As we saw in Melbourne, that comes in handy at the Slams, where it's all about survival in the early rounds. Once the quarterfinals roll around experience takes over, I like Clijsters' ability to work her way through matches. All this is to say that if she's healthy, I would rather bank on Clijsters to make it deeper than Serena at the majors. Serena may have the edge on grass, which gives her the nod at Wimbledon, but for me, Clijsters has a better chance at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. As for the Olympics, the grass may favor Serena but Clijsters has said she came back out of retirement with the Olympics as the goal. Never underestimate a mom on a mission.

Then again, I change my mind every five minutes. Like I said, this is a toss-up. So what say you, Chris?

Chris Oddo: Wow, you’re good Courtney. For a second there I’d almost forgotten why I’m going with Serena on this.

I do agree that it’s a tough call, and to be honest I don’t know if either is going to be able to win a Slam or an Olympic Gold now that we’re witnessing what appears to be the arrival of Azarenka and Petra Kvitova as major players in the women’s game. That said, there are a few good reasons why I think Serena will achieve better results than Kim in the Olympics and remaining Slams.

First, I’ll touch on something you mentioned: the grass. Since half of the events we are talking about will be played on the Perennial Ryegrass, it seems like a logical place to start.

Nothing against Kim, but Serena’s a four-time Wimbledon champion and reached the finals twice more. She steps out on Centre Court, peels off whatever designer warm-up gear she’s wearing, takes a long glance around the world’s most charming tennis stadium and says “Oh, right ... I own this place.” That’s a good feeling for a professional athlete to have, and I think it will do wonders for Serena this summer, when she’s had more than a year to put any lingering doubts about her very serious health issues behind her.

Second, I’ll add that Serena’s serve, especially on the grass, should provide a huge boost to her chances this summer. Mobility will always be an issue with Serena, especially now that she’s 30, but she is one of the few players on tour that is blessed with the ability to combat this deficiency with that legendary serve of hers. When she goes bombs-away with her serve, she's afforded the luxury of keeping points short and finishing them on her terms.

In this day and age, with WTA returners fiercer than ever, I like Serena’s skillset better than Kim’s for keeping the new breed of ornery baseliners at bay.

As far as Serena’s most recent failure in Australia, I’m going to avoid panicking about one bad loss on a bum ankle, and take the long view instead. Serena had a bad day, facing fifteen break points and surrendering five breaks against Ekaterina Makarova. It happens. Remember when Clijsters nearly got double-bageled by Nadia Petrova in Melbourne in 2010 and we all thought the sky was falling for her? It didn't. These are great champions we are talking about. They suffer a tough loss and come back stronger.

With regard to Serena, who is arguably the best server in the history of women’s tennis, I'd say that it's likely that she finds her serving groove this summer.

If she does, the rest of her game should follow suit.

Nguyen: No doubt about it, Chris. If Serena's on her game and serving well she's the favorite every time she steps out on grass. The only player on Tour who has the same weaponry is Kvitova, and who knows which Petra will show up in London. Or Paris. Or New York for that matter.

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But the way I find myself talking about Kvitova is the same way I talk about Serena. At her best she's virtually unbeatable. But when she's not at her best, what then? Serena can get through a lot of matches based on her fight and competitive spirit alone, but is that enough these days? And let's face it, that inconsistency has increased as she's gotten older and battled more injuries.

What I like about Kim is that she has a Plan B. When she's not serving well, or isn't hitting her forehand, she can usually rejigger her game to find something that works. Her game is more versatile and we can't underestimate how valuable that flexibility is in a time when the top women vary so much. You can go from playing Kvitova, to Radwanska, to Stosur, to Bartoli in any given draw. Against a field like that I like Kim's ability to use her superior movement to frustrate players and break down their games.

But you get the last word, Chris. Bring it on home. Wow me.

Oh, and way to bring up Nadia Petrova's 0 and 1 thrashing of Kim in 2010. That was way harsh, Tai.

Oddo: Courtney, you make some very solid points about Clijster’s versatility. It’s why she will be such a threat this year, provided she can avoid the early-round hiccup like the one she nearly had on Wednesday after dropping the first set to Jarmila Gajdosova in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open.

The one thing that we haven’t discussed is the psychological make-up of each player. But I think it’s fascinating and of the utmost importance, so here goes…

First off, I’m not entirely convinced that Clijsters won’t feel any pressure down the stretch. Serena might actually be the looser player because she is not working with a finite timetable, whereas in Kim’s case, if she hasn’t gotten the results she was hoping for at the French or Wimbledon, she might really start to press.

My guess is that Serena -- who is still living the self-centered single life and is much more concerned with padding her legacy and expanding the reach of her empire than, say, cooking three nutritious meals for her daughter in a nurturing environment -- is probably the player who is more desperate to win on the inside. It may not sound very zen, but who cares? I think that Serena and desperation is potentially a very potent combo.

The issues are most certainly complex. But in the end I think that Serena has a simpler mission in front of her. She needs to get back into top form and win. Clijsters, meanwhile, needs to navigate a circuitous route that will eventually take her to the end of her tennis career. She’ll really need to compartmentalize well, but if anybody can do it, Mama Kim can.

I’m of the opinion that simplicity is good for professional tennis players, therefore I’m tipping Serena to have the better year. You decide! Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments for which player will have better results at the remaining Slams and the Olympics.

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