Thursday May 3rd, 2012

Victoria Azarenka After starting 2012 on a 26-match win streak, Victoria Azarenka has seized control of the WTA power void. (Getty Images)

In last week's Toss , tennis blogger Ben Rothenberg joined to assess Mardy Fish's decision to skip the London Olympics. The top-ranked American got off to rough start to 2012, but was bailing on London a good idea? Well, sorry Ben, 59 percent of readers thought it was a good idea for the 30-year-old.

This week, SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno joins for a look at the stability of the current WTA power regime after the top four women all reached the semifinals for the first time since 2009.

Today's Toss: Is the WTA finally returning to a time of stability?

Courtney Nguyen: These are odd times for the WTA. Don't get me wrong, they're good times. Victoria Azarenka is a No. 1 with bite and she's consistently being challenged by the rest of the top players, namely, Maria Sharapova who, sitting at No. 2, is trying to reel her in. After four years of talk about volatility and unpredictability, which critics considered symptomatic of a tour that was weak in talent and commitment, we've now had four months of extreme stability. Since battling for the No. 1 ranking in the Australian Open final in January, the top two have met in two finals since, which is more than we can say about the men (Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have played only twice this year).

And, really, there's an argument to be made that the long-standing WTA disorder was put to rest last year. Starting in July, Petra Kvitova cemented her spot among the elite with her first Grand Slam title (at Wimbledon); Serena Williams tore through the North American hard-court season; Sam Stosur, a top-10 stalwart, won the U.S. Open; Agnieszka Radwanska and Azarenka emerged during the fall; and Kvitova wrapped up the year by claiming the WTA Championships.

All that said, I'm not ready to throw out my motto for the women's game ("WTA: Where Chaos Reigns") quite yet. First, what matters the most is what happens at the Slams, and we've still got three to go in 2012. What happens if someone outside the top five wins the French Open or the top players go crashing out of Wimbledon? It doesn't matter what's happening at the smaller tournaments like Indian Wells and Miami if those results don't translate to the majors. With only one Slam under our belts in 2012, we just don't have a big enough sample size.

Second, there's the Serena factor. She showed in Charleston that she still has the game to make you say, "Wow." She and Kvitova have palate-cleansing games: Just when your start to feel like every tour player has the same baseline game, those two have the ability to step to the line and hit a shot that completely eviscerates that stale taste in your mouth. But let's not forget that other than Charleston, which admittedly had a weak field, Williams hasn't made it past the quarterfinals of any tournament this year. Yes, injuries derailed her Australian Open campaign and she skipped the Middle East and Indian Wells before returning in Miami. But I'd love to see her reassert herself week-in and week-out. She'll be back in the mix in Madrid and Rome. Believe me when I say that I'll be on the edge of my seat to see how she does.

So what do you think, Chris? Do you think this stability is here to stay?

C.W. Sesno: I do think the stability is here to stay, but let me start by making one thing clear: Serena is an anomaly. Would anyone really be more surprised if she bulldozed the field to hoist some hardware than if she stalled out in the early rounds? (See: Makarova, Ekaterina.) Anything goes with her, so beating a top player to win an event wouldn’t be a coup of the current regime. Nor do I see her as a key part of the tour's stability since she’s been an absentee power for so long. Win or lose, I just don’t think the Serena Factor affects the stability at the top of the WTA.

I agree with you, Courtney, that we’re not terribly far into the season and we need to see how the remaining majors unfold. But look at what the WTA’s version of the Big Four has done this year:  No. 1 Azarenka has four titles (Sydney, Melbourne, Doha, Indian Wells) and failed to make the final in only one of her 2012 tournaments. No. 2 Sharapova has just one title (Stuttgart) but made the finals of every tournament she’s entered minus an early knockout by up-and-comer Angelique Kerber in Paris. No. 3 Kvitova reached the Australian Open semifinals before injury squashed her momentum. No. 4 Radwanska has two titles (Dubai, Miami) and her only losses of the year came against Azarenka.

Now let’s look at the biggest tournaments of the year, those featuring two or more of the top four players in the field. In Sydney, then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki was upended by rising Radwanska in the quarters and the semis featured A-Rad, Azarenka, Li Na and Kvitova. At the Australian Open, three of the top four made the semis, with perennial contender Kim Clijsters playing spoiler to Wozniacki (who still had top billing). In Doha, the semis featured Azarenka, Radwanska and Stosur. At Indian Wells, a banged-up Kvitova fell in the third round, but Azarenka, Sharapova and Radwanska all reached the quarters, with the No. 1 and No. 2 facing off in a lopsided final. The following week in Miami featured a packed quarterfinals with Azarenka, Sharapova, Radwanska, two Williamses and Wozniacki. Even after Bartoli the Giant Killer’s upset of Azarenka, Radwanska, Sharapova and Wozniacki headlined the semis.

And that brings us to Stuttgart. The WTA’s top four players -- Azarenka, Sharapova, Kvitova and Radwanska -- all advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2009 Wimbledon, where No. 1 Dinara Safina, No. 2 Serena, No. 3 Venus and No. 4 Elena Dementieva made it. The bottom line is, with the exception of a dinged-up Kvitova, the top players are facing each other deep in tournaments. And, barring more injuries, I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

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Nguyen: I'm definitely intrigued by the idea of the top four consistently going deep in tournaments. In fact, it's hard to ignore some of the parallels between the WTA and the ATP at the moment. A fiery No. 1 who dominates at the big tournaments; a No. 2 famous for her fighting spirit; an inconsistent No. 3 (with an incredible indoor record) who is capable of beating anyone on any given day and who seems to keep falling to the No. 2; and a No. 4 with a relatively underpowered game who's still trying to break through. Add to that a handful of players (Serena, Stosur, Kerber, Bartoli) who can play spoiler on any given day (and can we put Wozniacki in at the David Ferrer slot?). You have to admit, the parallels are uncanny.

A year ago this week, here's where the current top five players were ranked: Azarenka No. 5, Stosur No. 8, Sharapova No. 9, Radwanska No. 11 and Kvitova No. 18. The top four? Wozniacki, Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva and Francesca Schiavone. Among those four, only Wozniacki is still in the top nine, at No. 6. All that is to say, this is how quickly things can change in the WTA. Kvitova still hasn't made a final this year, Stosur is still unreliable at the big tournaments despite her U.S. Open victory, and Azarenka and Radwanska haven't proved themselves over a long span of time. Sharapova is the only one with an established pedigree.

Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely inclined to believe the days of one-off Slam winners and, with all due respect, forgettable tournament champions are over, and the top women have done one heck of a job of proving this true. But I've been burned before by the WTA, when it's teased me with the notion of consistency. If I had to put my money on it, I bet on chaos.

Sesno: I agree with you, Courtney, the sample size isn’t large enough to definitively say we’ve entered (or re-entered) a time of stability. But as you point out, the process of regaining stability actually started long before the first serve of 2012. Kvitova burst onto the scene in Australia, and, ignoring her regular U.S. hardcourt slump, planted herself among the elite after winning Wimbledon. Radwanska capped off a solid 2011 season by winning Tokyo and Beijing and cracking the top 10. Azarenka had been a steady figure in the top 10, but she came out of the gate hard and fast and is a surefire No. 1. Sharapova was the exception as the lone Slam winner of the group, but she’s made steady progress since her shoulder surgery in 2008 knocked her down. So, I think it’d be fair to say the wheels of stability have been in motion for some time now, ultimately leading to the power structure we see now.

The comparison to the ATP is a good one, but is also part of the reason I wasn’t including Stosur in the current regime. Sure she and a handful of others can play spoiler at any time, but stability should mean consistency. If we’re comparing the WTA’s stability (or lack thereof) to the ATP oligarchy, then do we need to look outside the top four? Say what you will about Murray’s missing Slam title, but he’s a perennial major semifinalist and has a handful of Masters 1000 shields. The ATP has its share of spoilers: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, John Isner come to mind. And you can't ever rule out David Ferrer. But ultimately, those players lack consistency -- as further evidenced by Tsonga's early exit in Munich -- which is precisely why they're back-burner considerations when we're talking about stability. We’ll always get the Kiki Bertens and Kevin Andersons of the world because the top players only play the biggest events. The difference now is the top four women are all making deep runs at those big events, facing off against each other and winning the matches they're supposed to. They’re all younger than 25, and we’re already seeing some tension on the top. I’d love to see this stability and consistency play out over the next three or four years like we've seen with the men. It’d be great for women’s tennis.

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