September 24, 2008

Quitting While You're Ahead

The Number One ranking in women's tennis has been up for grabs this year.

So far in 2008 five different people have held the top spot -- the most unique names ever to claim the honor in a single year. Sure the ranking has swapped back and forth between two rivals in the past -- Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova traded off in 1979 and 1985; Steffi Graf and Monica Seles did the same in '91 (and again in 1995-96 after Monica returned); Steffi battled again in '95, this time with Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Then there was the Martina Hingis-Lindsay Davenport rivalry in 1999-2000, Lindsay and Maria Sharapova in 2005, and most recently Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati in 2002.

But for so many to occupy the top spot in such a short time frame is somewhat unprecedented. It's like the #1 ranking is a hot potato and no one wants to hold onto it for too long.

This year's chain reaction was kicked off in mid-May when then-#1 Justine Henin unexpectedly announced her immediate retirement just weeks before the French Open. That passed the torch to Sharapova who stayed on top for three weeks before ceding the position to Ana Ivanovic. Fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic wrested the rank from her compatriot for exactly one week before giving it back, and since the U.S. Open Serena Williams has been at #1.

What's ironic about the musical chairs of women's tennis is that I'm not sure it would ever have happened if Justine hadn't left the circuit. She was clearly at the top of her game in May. She was only twenty-six at the time and had already won 41 WTA singles titles -- less than five months into the year, she'd already won two. In 2007 she had won both the French & U.S. Opens, and the previous year she was in the finals of all four Grand Slams.

Justine was an unlikely athlete -- she was so lithe and graceful, it was easy to mistake her for a dancer instead of a tennis star. She's teeny in a sport where success tends to follow the tall -- of the other four girls to hold the top ranking this year, Jelena is the shortest at 5'10"; Justine wasn't even 5'6", and her opponents towered over her.

Her height, however, didn't make her any less of a threat on the playing field. She had bullet-fast serves (clocked as high as 124mph), a powerful one-handed backhand that whizzed by her adversaries, and she could cover the court better than most girls twice her size. She was a role model to players like me who, at 5'4" didn't think they stood a chance on any playing field -- but Justine could beat players you never thought she'd be able to. When she left the game only three women had winning records against her -- the Williams sisters and Lucie Safarova, a Czech player who only played Henin once.

And as is appropriate with the greatest of athletes, Justine even had a long-running rivalry with fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters -- sometimes friendly, sometimes showing a real deep-rooted competition. Between 1998 and 2006 the two met twenty-two times with Justine holding a narrow 12-10 lead, but seven of those victories came when a title was on the line -- five in Grand Slam finals. Justine also outmanned Kim in the rankings, holding onto #1 for a total of 117 weeks compared to a relatively paltry nineteen. The numbers may have favored Henin, but any time these two met on the court, you knew you were in for a fight.

But then, without warning, Justine left.

There is something to be said for quitting while you're ahead, I suppose -- I can't imagine that the fall from the top is an especially fun trip to take, so why not staunch the bleeding before it starts? But given her performance so far this year, it just didn't seem like Henin was anywhere near losing her grip on #1. She was just days away from Roland Garros, the Slam she had won four of the five previous years; she was healthy, she was fit, and she was the heavy favorite.

I'm not here to pass judgment on Justine's reasons for retiring. Everyone is entitled to personal time and an opportunity to be with family and friends when needed, and I'm sure Justine really was justified in her decision.

But what upsets me is the gaping hole it left in women's tennis. Sure Maria and Serena certainly are fantastic players, but with Sharapova's shoulder injury and Serena's inconsistency in recent years, do either deserve to be at the top? And while both Ana and Jelena show signs of greatness now and then, let's be honest, don't we all sometimes feel that at our best even we could beat them?

I know retirements in sports aren't permanent -- in women's tennis alone Lindsey Davenport, Martina Hingis and even Venus Williams all came back after swearing themselves done with the game (admittedly with varying degrees of success). I hope that some day soon Justine will also return -- I miss having a woman I can consistently root for on the court!

But 'til then and to all of you, serve well and play hard!

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