Commentary

How to handle the WTA unpredictability

Originally Published: May 12, 2010
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Jelena JankovicTiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty ImagesJelena Jankovic and the game of tennis are finally on the same page again.

You can't count on anyone these days. One week, a player looks like she's poised to establish a consistent run of success -- the next, she's eating a bagel on her favorite surface a week after winning the first title of her comeback.

Justine Henin, who won Stuttgart and then suffered a first-round loss in Madrid, isn't the only one riding the results roller coaster. She and her fellow Belgians looked set to be a force this year after going 24-0 against the rest of the tour to start the season. Now, Henin is dealing with a broken finger and an energy-sapping cold, Kim Clijsters is sidelined with a foot injury and Yanina Wickmayer is recovering from elbow surgery.

Older players thriving

Age and experience seem to be advantages in these conditions. If there's been one discernable trend this season, it's veterans dominating over young up-and-comers. No player under 26 has won a Premier level event or higher ($600,000 and up), and players 22 and under have taken only about a quarter of all the WTA events played so far.

This includes not only the re-emergence of already-established champs like Serena, Henin and Clijsters, but also the new faces creeping up the ranks.

Teens and 20-year-olds like Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Melanie Oudin have faded for the present, and many of players showing real improvement like Samantha Stosur, have been on the tour for a number of years.

Although many of the younger players seem intent on playing themselves into the ground, the experienced hands have learned to manage their schedules and listen to their bodies a little better. The youngest players in the top 15 are averaging about four more tournaments a year than the older players.

The veterans' games are also more stable and versatile. The Williamses and the Belgians have added significantly to their tactical, physical or mental capabilities over the years. It's notable that the new rising veterans also tend to have considerable variety in their games.

After seeing 27-year-old Sanchez Martinez volley her way to the Rome title last week, even Martina might be tempted to make a comeback. Not Hingis -- Navratilova.

-- Kamakshi Tandon

Serena Williams won the Australian Open, then was sidelined with a knee injury for the next two months. Returning last week at Rome, she reached the semifinals and looked to be rounding into form, only to almost get knocked out in the first round of Madrid this week -- she saved match point in a 3-hour, 26-minute marathon against Vera Dushevina, the longest match of her career. And Williams is the closest the tour has come to having a benchmark of consistency over the past couple of years.

It's not even safe to write players off. Jelena Jankovic has resurrected herself with a title at Indian Wells and wins over both Williams sisters at Rome. And fellow Serb Ana Ivanovic stopped her freefall by defeating two top-10 players in reaching the semifinals in the Italian capital.

And things might only get wilder. We've become used to having a few big names upset early on -- think Clijsters and Sharapova at the Australian Open or Henin in Indian Wells and Madrid -- but still, the player holding the trophy at the end of a tournament has usually been one of a half-dozen predictable names.

Last week, however, there weren't just the usual plot twists, but an entirely unexpected ending as well -- the unseeded Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez carried off the title. It harks back to the mid-1990s and early 2000s on the men's tour, when anyone from Pete Sampras to semi-known Thomas Johansson to a complete unknown like Roberto Carretero could carry off a big title.

Why has the women's tour become so unpredictable? Injuries are an obvious part of the answer. Every top player has spent some time out of contention because of physical problems. Inconsistency is another. Most players blast from the baseline with little room for error, which means that when they're on, they're really on -- but when they're off even a little, it can get pretty ugly.

Pressure has been part of the mix. Clijsters' and Henin's temporary retirements and Serena's frequent hiatuses created a vacuum at the top that was filled by players who had worked hard but simply weren't ready to take up such lofty mantles. The weight of expectation helped send Ivanovic off a cliff, and Jankovic and Dinara Safina crumbled under the searching scrutiny of their modest Grand Slam résumés. One vacuum created another.

The reason these factors have had such a big impact is because they've been coupled with a genuine increase in depth on the tour. Once upon a time, a limping, unprepared or frazzled top player could show up at a big tournament and work her way through her problems. No longer. Now there's always a Lucie Safarova or Alisa Kleybanova around to pick off a top seed if they don't come up to scratch, or an in-form Kateryna Bondarenko or Maria Kirilenko prepared to hang tough in a third set. A top player who has a bad day frequently finds herself going home.

All of which means the current chaos could be here for a while. So what's a tennis fan to do? Change your mindset. It's not enough to tune in at the weekend and expect to see the top players and the best matches.

Here's how to find calm in the storm:

1. Embrace it

It's part of the cycle. These chaos periods don't produce a lot of legendary rivalries or even classic finals -- fighting through the draw leaves players tired, and early upsets can mean lopsided matchups down the road. On the other hand, there's a broader cast of characters and a lot of competitive matches if you know where to look for them.

2. Know more players

[+] EnlargeAlisa Kleybanova
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesIn this age of uncertainty, you'll do yourself a service by getting to know players like Alisa Kleybanova.

The likes of Anastasija Sevastova and Andrea Petkovic aren't just gobbledygook name-fillers in a draw. They've got talent and shots, and you need to know who they are and what they're capable of. They can turn out to be pretty interesting in their own right, too.

3. Focus on the background

Surface, physical condition and current form can often matter more than who the higher-ranked player is.

4. Adjust expectations

At other times, you might expect a player who wins a tournament to have a better chance of doing well in her next event. During periods of parity, though, it actually makes it more likely that she'll lose early the next time out.

5. Watch more matches

When details determine results, the only way to notice those details is to watch matches. Tune in on the weekend and you'll be scratching your head seeing Ana "what happened to her?" Ivanovic playing Maria Jose "is that Conchita or Arantxa?" Martinez Sanchez in the semifinals. Tune in early when they're starting to knock off the top players, and it will all make sense. Plus, you'll have a better chance of seeing the best contests of the week. Because a tournament's memorable encounters now tend to happen spontaneously throughout the draw rather than just the later rounds, watching more matches means seeing more good matches.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.