State of the Women: The Serve, The Nerve, The Size

After the US Open concluded, the men’s game was criticized as boring because of Roger Federer’s dominance over the rest of the field. On the other side of the fence, the women are going through exactly the opposite problem: no one has really emerged this year to dominate the women’s game. Does this make for more exciting tennis? Not necessarily. I wish it did but, in fact, we could level a number of criticisms at the women’s game. Several things occurred at the Open which bring the subject up again: namely, whither women’s tennis?

Really, I want to like women’s tennis, but the women sometimes make it very hard for us to get behind them. Consider some of the problems that bother several of the big stars on the women’s tour. They deal with the serve, or lack thereof (Dementieva), the nerve, or lack thereof (Hingis), and the size factor (Serena Williams).

The fact that these players have been slow to address their respective issues makes me wonder when they are going to get their acts together and really try to develop as players, rather than just hang out in the bottom half of the Top Ten.

So much has been said about Dementieva’s gruesome serve, as I like to call it, because of the huge disparity between the rest of her game (powerful and consistent off both wings) and her serving problems. At the Open she probably reached her nadir with that serve, losing to rising Serbian player Jelena Jankovic without winning even one service game. Talk about taking it hard on the chin.

Why should we care? Who gives a can of Penns if Elena Dementieva wants to try and get by on the rest of her game without a decent serve? Why should some of us, myself included, take this serve as nearly a personal affront to our highly tuned tennis sensibilities?

The reason I get so annoyed is that it’s a bad reflection on the state of women’s tennis. For Elena to have the serve she does, and still rise to the top five of women’s tennis is not anything to crow home about. For some people, women’s tennis is still one of the best jokes going in women’s sports. Look at the early draws of any major tourney, the bagel jobs, the 1, 2 and 3 scores come in droves. When you add Elena and that sidearm delivery of hers, the smiles get even broader.

The women, in a nutshell, seem able to get by with less in their games. They are able to get to the top tier because the top tier gives them plenty of room to hang out there with skill levels that may, or may not be, top flight. You would never see this happening with the men.

Elena Dementieva’s serving troubles are being mirrored lately by Martina Hingis’ problems. Martina recently ran into reality too. It was not pretty. She thought she could continue her dominance over the lesser ranked women and make a few more inroads against the power hitters. At least that seemed her game plan coming back at the start of the year. Then Virginie Razzano pushed her out of the Open in strong fashion and showed that any number of girls ranked lower than Hingis could beat her on any given day.

We all praised the return of Hingis at the start of the year as a welcome return to the game of someone who really knew how to play it. Mentally Hingis has great court sense and good strategy, as our dear leader would say. I used to root against her when she was on top, so call me a Flipflopper but I fell for Martina, and like everyone else, we fell hard as we got behind her comeback.

But now the comeback has gotten bogged down. The rather thorough defeat she suffered in New York seems to have put the fear of God into Hingis; now she’s gone out and reverted to playing the girly tennis equivalent of triple A ball. Tier IV events they’re called. Let’s just hope this is a temporary loss of nerve, that Hingis took this on as a way of building up her confidence.

Several weeks ago she played in a really really small tournament in India. She whipped through the field. Not a hard task given the field consisted of only one woman who could bother her, Sania Mirza, and Hingis flew past her 1 and 0 in the semis, then crushed Poutchkova in the final, 0 and 4. Pooch who? you may be asking. That’s Olga to you, ranked 85th in the world. But then last week in Korea, another small tour stop, Hingis went out early to Mirza.

So, where are you going little girl, I want to ask Hingis. What are your goals? Just to hang out in the top ten, or do you really want to make a run again for the very top? And can you make a run to the top when your confidence seems shaken to the point that you’re now playing triple A ball, in India of all places?

The fact that Hingis could leap forward in the rankings as easily as she did would be unheard of in the men’s game. Again, I am cringing, this is not a good state of affairs. For Hingis to lose to “one of the lessers” and for Dementieva to get clocked good by a newcomer are strong wake-up calls. Let’s hope they are heeded. The women’s game will be the better when they can address their respective issues.

For Elena, she needs to correct her serve. Whatever it takes, whoever you need to hire, she should do it. No more waffling. She is a disciplined, technically sound and well-trained player who knows what it is to have a work ethic. There is no reason she cannot master this important part of the game. The woman is 5’11” for heaven’s sake. Now try and act like it.

For Hingis, it is a matter of working harder to improve specific parts of her game. Yes, the serve, for sure in her case too. And her ground strokes are not as strong as they could be, and really need to be, if she is serious about making herself competitive again. I mention Hingis in the same breath as someone like Justine Henin-Hardenne. They both face the same problem: how do “little girls” (defined as anything under 5’7″) win on the tour these days? Justine is even smaller than Hingis, but Justine got fired up and trained like a banshee and added that extra pop on her serve, and more pace on her groundies.

Why can’t Hingis do the same? I think she needs to or this comeback is going to smell increasingly like some PR stunt, like the woman never really intended to make a serious dent in the women’s field.

For Serena Williams, none of the above mentioned problems will ever be a factor in her world. She suffers from no illusions that women players should always look ladylike on a court. She can belt the ball with intense ferocity on her serve and she’s got the big groundies. But she’s got a big can too, and that’s her cross to bear.

If she can take the weight off and keep it off, hopefully with a lot more tournament play, she should be the one woman player who will get back to the top. But her knee is going to continue to act up unless Serena can keep the excess weight off. I was surprised she moved as well as she did at the Open, considering her new-found heft. But she won’t be moving well for long on that knee unless she gets rid of the weight.

There will always be a space for a player like Serena. As for Dementieva and Hingis, that remains to be seen. They are good B players who somehow managed to get into the top ten. For a while. Let’s see if a new year can bring some new changes in their games. Both of them have a lot of potential that we haven’t fully yet seen on a court.