There's nothing like a command performance from Serena Williams to put contemporary women's tennis in perspective. Charging through the field in Madrid, completely dismantling top-ranked Victoria Azarenka in the final, Williams was a superior athlete at the top of her game, demonstrating once again why she belongs in any discussion of the all-time greats.
Good thing, too. This tournament needed her in the worst way.
As much as the blue clay courts dominated the headlines, complete with boycott threats from Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, this was a discouraging event for the WTA. When Djokovic said the transition to Rome's clay courts felt like "paradise," he certainly spoke for most everyone on the women's side.
Right off the bat, the women's draw was a complete mystery to television viewers. Tennis Channel aired men's play exclusively until the women's quarterfinals on Friday, and until that point, there wasn't a highlight, a glance at the draw, or any hint that women were even playing in Madrid.
It's true that ESPN3 aired a few of the early-week women's matches, using tournament-provided video and audio, but few fans were aware of that, and from this point of view, there's nothing fresh or satisfying about watching sports on a computer screen. Not when you should be relaxing on your living-room sofa.
This was the explanation from a spokesman at Tennis Channel: "It's a resource issue, and another example of why we've fought so hard for TC to be treated like Golf Channel and other single-sports networks that aren't stifled by limited-audience sports tiers. We have the rights to show both the men's and women's matches in Madrid, and for this event we use the ATP and WTA feeds. The difference is that the ATP offers a fully produced feed, with graphics and on-air talent, and the WTA doesn't. This means that when we take the WTA feed, we have to produce it (i.e., get it ready for air) by adding graphics, music, a play-by-play person and analyst, etc., which we don't have to do with the men's feed. As an independent network with limited resources, we weren't able to air as many women's matches as we'd like."
This is an issue that needs to be resolved between the WTA and Tennis Channel, because a number of intriguing matches -- including Azarenka-Ana Ivanovic, Williams-Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur-Christina McHale and Francesca Schiavone-Varvara Lepchenko -- fell on the dark side. At a tournament of this magnitude, ranking just below the majors in significance, that's just not acceptable.
A number of women, including Stosur and Azarenka, made it clear that Madrid's clay courts were slippery and inappropriate, given that the tournament is such an important warmup for the French Open. What should concern the WTA more, though, is the attendance. As the first balls were struck in two matches of the highest order -- Serena-Sharapova and Serena-Azarenka -- the stands were shockingly vacant. You could have stashed all of those fans into the bleachers of a collegiate stadium.
One reason, truth be told, is that "shrieking" is not being tolerated by the general public. That goes for viewers turning down the sound on their television sets, as well as on-site fans who simply won't put up with Sharapova's or Azarenka's inexcusable howling. And the scene in Madrid hardly represents an isolated state of affairs. We've seen a dropoff in WTA attendance at a number of big tournaments in America, including day matches at the U.S. Open, and this has to be a matter of concern within the Tour's executive offices.
Madrid also suffered from a lack of compelling matches. Just when McHale looked capable of making a major statement, Stosur blitzed her 6-0 in the third set. Wozniacki vanished after winning the first set against Serena, and tour observers mocked her ostensibly pointless on-court coaching sessions with her father, Piotr. Serena simply blasted Sharapova off the court, 6-1, 6-3. Venus Williams was similarly dispatched by Angelique Kerber, 6-4, 6-1. Not that anyone should be terribly surprised at this point, but once again, Agnieszka Radwanska had no answers against her ongoing nemesis, Azarenka, in the semifinals. Then came the sight of the world's No. 1 player looking thoroughly outclassed, as usual, by Serena.
As the draw progressed, Serena wasn't just up against miniscule crowds, blue clay and an extremely strong field, but a Spanish coach, as well. Ricardo Sanchez, who has coached Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic in the past and now works with Nadia Petrova, decided that both of the Williams sisters "do not want to play tennis. They compete now just to make the London Games. They are more into celebrity and fashion."
Sanchez claimed that if Serena played a normal amount of tour events, "She would be the best in the world. But the Williams are like sprinters -- they cannot stand the long rallies, and if you get four balls back, they can't play. When you go from there, they die."
My goodness. You're really not sure whether to laugh at Sanchez or toss him into a nearby river -- a really cold one, the better to restore his perspective. But enough of all that. Serena's career does not need defending, nor does her lifestyle or competitive spirit. She has qualities that Sanchez never could instill in Petrova, Jankovic or Wozniacki, for they cannot be taught.
So as the women move on to Rome, get out the trash can for Madrid. Throw out blue clay, forever; it's not "visionary," it carries no aesthetic value, and it's phony. Dismiss the sight of that empty stadium, look for future improvements in the television coverage, and forget the sight of the disconsolate Azarenka.
Retain just one thing: Serena Williams at her best. There's something that stands the test of time.