Other previous champions have seemed, somehow, equally eager to distance themselves from the sport as soon as an opportunity presented itself.
Last year’s champion, Justine Henin, retired earlier this year at the age of 25—a year after she won two Grand Slams—and left the game because, she said, she was burnt out. The 2005 Open champion, Kim Clijsters, retired at 23 with a similar explanation.
And no one among the current crop of would-be superstars seems willing, or able, to stay on top long enough to allow the public to get to know them. For example, the telegenic French Open champion and new No. 1, Ana Ivanovic, got bounced in the second round to a player barely ranked inside the top 200, the second consecutive Grand Slam where she didn’t even make it to the fourth round.
It didn’t used to be this way. Starting as early as 1998, women’s Grand Slam finals had consistently higher ratings than the men’s. But in the past three years, the scale has been tipping back, and this year, the erosion of the women’s once dominant position seems complete.
Part of this comes down to a sort of vacuum at the top. The women’s side was once so strong that the first week of play was something of a joke, so routinely did the in-form stars make embarrassingly quick work of their first-round opponents.
Now, that’s what the men’s side looks like. Over a week of play so far at the Open, four top players—Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick—have dropped three sets combined.
And with the high survival rate of the marquee players, the potential late-round matchups are mouth-watering. A Djokovic-Roddick quarterfinal, with the American veteran looking for one last triumph vs. the 2007 U.S. Open finalist and 2008 Australian Open champion. There’s the real possibility of a Nadal-Federer final, which would be the third consecutive one in a Grand Slam this year, and Nadal’s first-ever hardcourt Grand Slam final appearance. And there’s the possibility of a Nadal-Djokovic final, not to mention a Roddick-Federer semifinal.
The headlines write themselves.
“Men’s tennis is at the point where no matter what happens, it’s interesting,” said Wertheim. “‘Federer gets his mojo back and wins a Slam and shuts up his critics!’ ‘Federer loses and the wheels have really come off!’ ‘Nadal wins and it’s the best year since Rod Laver!’ ‘Djokovic wins and he wins two slams in one year!’
“Men’s tennis is at a point where—and this is where women’s tennis used to be—anything that happens provides a juicy plot,” he said.
The one thing that could save the women’s game this year, of course, is a self-inflicted drama involving the Williams sisters. Because they take part in so few tournaments, they wound up in the same quarter in the draw and only one of them will survive to the final four of the Open.
And maybe if one of them can eke it out and win the whole thing, everyone will forget about Ana Ivanovic’s second-round loss.
But still, that’s pretty meager stuff. On Sept. 6, the day of the women’s final and the men’s semifinals, when Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are potentially playing in one semifinal, and it’s Roddick or Djokovic against Federer in the other half of the draw, the women will have to pray they’ve got still got a Williams to give fans someone to root for (or against).
The plot thins.