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Friday, June 12, 2009
Among tennis' women, only chaos reigns No. 1


Ever since Justine Henin retired last spring, the WTA has degenerated into a free-for-all, with every title up for grabs and the world No. 1 ranking dropping in value faster than the U.S. dollar at the start of the recent recession. The tour has featured all chiefs and no Indians, with the distinction between contender and pretender rendered meaningless by the way women (even those who have won major events) commute so brazenly between either identity.

It looked like the professional version of the everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality would get another big boost as recently as last week at Roland Garros, when Dinara Safina was rolling toward bagging that long-deferred first Grand Slam title. Had Safina won, she would have become the seventh different winner in the last eight Slam tournaments, and the second first-time major champ in the past year.

What does it say about the sport that the closest thing the WTA has to a model of consistency is … Serena Williams! After all, she's the only two-time major winner in that eight-event skein.

But Safina, to the utter shock and mortification of many, came to her window of opportunity and decided she didn't want to jump through. And while she failed to win her first major, she also added credence to the idea that the WTA is an unpredictable mess. Svetlana Kuznetsova, a complicated young lady who never met a match she couldn't choke away, finally did what nobody expected: She played a solid, smart, anxiety-and-self-loathing free match to earn the second major of her career. (She won the U.S. Open back in the year '05 A.G. -- After Graf).

Many people were surprised by Kuznetsova's potentially career-reviving win in Paris, but I wasn't. It was almost preordained, given the way the WTA has embraced chaos as standard operating procedure. Safina, now winless in three finals and one semi at the Grand Slam-event level, had turned in a magnificent 12-month stretch of tennis heading for Roland Garros.

Safina's consistency, and her ability to win big (if not major) titles, earned her the No. 1 ranking -- something she basically snatched away from Serena (who does nothing but win the periodic major) and Jelena Jankovic (who seemed reluctant to win a major, lest she ruin her reputation as an undeserving No. 1). Safina also bagged the title at each of the two big events leading up to Roland Garros: Madrid and Rome. And look at the way Safina played early on in Paris, losing fewer games on her way to the fourth round than any player since Mary Pierce in 1994 (a year in which Pierce was ultimately denied the title by Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario).

But on Sunday, we again saw how unwise it is to build our expectations of any WTA player. Safina folded up miserably against Kuznetsova, who needed only to avoid playing stupid or gagging the win. And while Safina was so bummed out by the loss that she could barely wade through her press conference -- I didn't know there were so many monosyllabic words in the English language -- her meltdown in Paris underscored the WTA's apparent commitment to chaos.

Had Safina won, it might have suggested that there's a new sheriff in town. Heavens! We wouldn't want that now, would we? Now that Safina blew her can't-miss opportunity and Kuznetsova revived her flagging fortunes, it's like somebody hit the refresh button, ensuring that the WTA will continue doing business as usual.