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Among other things, the weekend festivities that ushered in the calm before the Roland Garros storm served up a vivid snapshot of where the ATP and WTA are as institutions. In Hamburg, Germany, Rafael Nadal survived another gut-wrencher to snatch a three-set victory from Roger Federer.
Meanwhile, in Rome, Jelena Jankovic prevailed over Alize Cornet in a 6-2,6-2 ho-hummer. You could be forgiven for mistaking the losing player's name for that of some fancy European aperitif best enjoyed after a quick spin on the Riviera in some convertible with gull-wing doors. The French teenager Cornet was a qualifier in the event, and I assume she might have been thinking along these lines when she decided to hop the train to Rome: Hey, you never know these days, maybe Serena will come down with a bad back, Maria will mess up her leg and Justine will quit tennis for good. Looks like a pretty good shot to me!.
OK, I exaggerate; and Cornet is, by any standard, a gifted up-and-coming player. But the top players start dropping like flies whenever there's a sub-Grand Slam WTA event to play, either from (ahem) injury, disinterest or boredom. The bottom has fallen out of what used to be "the tour" -- there's no doubt about it. At press time, it appeared as though most of the players will still show up for the French Open, but would anybody be surprised if, oh, two or three stars either don't show or pull out once Roland Garros is under way?
Federer and Nadal have met seven times since the start of 2007 (Nadal just nosed out front, 4-3), which, in my opinion, is a fair number when you're talking about legitimate rivalries. Meanwhile, in that same period, recently retired No. 1 Justine Henin has played Maria Sharapova all of twice (1-1), Serena Williams five times (Henin prevailed 3-2), and Venus Williams once (Henin won their U.S Open battle in 2007). Those numbers just don't cut it, although it's all water under the bridge now that Henin has up and quit.
In a more specific way, this clay-court spring has been nothing but a disaster for the WTA: With all due respect to the names that follow, the winners during prime-time for European tennis have been: Maria Kirilenko, Vera Zvonareva, Gisela Dulko, Dinara Safina and Jankovic.
On the men's side, the champion's roll looks like this: Federer, David Ferrer, Nadal, Nadal, Fernando Gonzalez, Novak Djokovic and Nadal. There isn't a man on that list who hasn't been in the top 5, and only two have yet to win Grand Slam events (Ferrer and Gonzalez, a former Australian Open runner-up). Among the women, only Jankovic is, or has been, a top-5 performer, and not a one has a major title.
No matter how you look at this, the message is clear: The top WTA women either can't or won't play enough events below the Grand Slam level to make the tour a meaningful yardstick, or to develop the rivalries that put tennis on the first page of the sports section in most newspapers.
Granted, the European clay tour has never been as robust and successful an enterprise for the women as it has been for the men, partly because the Europeans simply won't support the women's game or take their cues from the U.S. when it comes to perceived gender equality. But whatever the reasons, the harsh reality is that you can't have a successful, relevant tour without top players or great rivalries, and the WTA is running out of both.