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Monday, March 16, 2009
"Top" WTA players failing to seize the opportunity

Though the dominant questions going into the first American Masters Series event of the year (the BNP Paribas Open currently under way at Indian Wells) concerned Roger Federer's back, the main theme that has emerged so far has been the chaos at the top of the WTA Tour.

I'm using "top" loosely. Is there a "top" tier of players in the women's game anymore? Well, yes -- theoretically, there's Venus and Serena Williams, followed pretty closely by Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova. I could give you a snapshot of certain records and statistics (including Grand Slam titles and gold medals secured, as well as rankings achieved), or even moments in time (like last year's all-Williams Wimbledon final) that might make this group look awfully impressive.

But if I run the whole film, it's puzzling and a bit sad.

OK, the Williamses continue their personal boycott of Indian Wells, and Sharapova is still rusty from her extended hiatus (she played only doubles at the BNP Paribas and lost early). But it isn't as if the other contenders for the big titles and top ranking eagerly seized the opportunity to advance at the Williamses' expense. In fact, it sometimes seems as if the stampede is away from -- rather than toward -- the top. Why has "opportunity" become such a dirty word in WTA circles?

Never before have we had so many potentially great players -- those who have shown their mettle as potential (in some cases former) No. 1s and Grand Slam champions -- so utterly fail to step up and take advantage of the window before them.

So here we are at, arguably, the fifth-most significant event of the year, and which members of the august company mentioned above are still alive to fight for a spot in the quarterfinals? Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic. If they play the final (and they are in different halves, so it's possible), the WTA "leadership class" may save face. The outcome seems possible, less because of the competitive abilities of those women than the fact that they won't have to beat any blooded veterans to get there. The other bodies have already been bagged and shipped.

I guess you could look at the "up" side. A possible title will bring Safina one step closer to a breakthrough performance at one of the three majors left this year. Maybe the breathing room afforded by the chaos in the WTA will allow Ivanovic to rebuild the confidence she began to lose so soon after she won her first major in Paris in 2008, where she earned a brief trip to check out the view from the top of the rankings.

But it's just as likely that a Vera Zvonareva, for whom success on a large scale has been long deferred, despite the quality of her game, or a Daniela Hantuchova, who's got a great history in the desert, will add another chapter to this narrative of a tour without an adequate leadership class.

Meanwhile, we hear rampant rumors of a Kim Clijsters comeback. It's ironic, because I see Clijsters as similar to many of the flawed champions under consideration. It all makes me want to get on the telephone and scream, "Get me Justine Henin, pronto!"