x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Kim Clijsters deserves the No 1 ranking

Clijsters's rise to No 1 ranking, a starless grand slam final, Jankovic's wit, Li's candid talk ... whoever said women's tennis is boring?

I have never given birth personally but have noticed it appears unusually arduous.

For somebody to pull it off and then to return - at any time thereafter - to the ruthlessly exacting form required to be the world's No 1 tennis player, well, sorry, that leaves me somewhere between wowed and awed, and you will not convince me otherwise.

And if that person wins two US Opens and one Australian Open in the years after childbirth and happens to double as a long-established delight, look, I am going to pay attention to that.

So I would start right there by saying that any sport boasting Kim Clijsters is worth watching, but then I would go beyond Clijsters.

When there is a tour with as many likeable sorts in contention as does the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), but it still has to answer logical questions about why it seems less alluring to the public than in other years, then I have to wonder about two things.

I wonder if people in general just really don't like tennis all that much, and I wonder if people in general are sort of lazy.

As the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships lifted the lid yesterday perhaps more noted for the megastars it lacks - Clijsters, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova - than for the supremely talented people who have come, the former prospect has plenty of merit.

In addition to its long-held marginalisation against other sports, tennis has spent recent decades watching equipment "improvements" whittle variety until almost everybody plays similarly. It can be harder to discern faces when it is harder to discern games.

The latter possibility, meanwhile, intrigues me, as whenever I look at the WTA website I see the women all done up as if attending one of the planet's roughly 1,000,000 awards shows.

Surely the people who suggested applying the make-up know something about the science of marketing, so, the question: for greater humanity to cotton to athletes of this calibre, must they all resemble red-carpet regals?

Who invented human culture anyway, Silvio Berlusconi?

All I can tell you is I walked into the pre-final press conferences at the 2009 French Open and I heard the two-time grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who ranks No 23 and played last night.

I heard her then-opponent, Dinara Safina, tell of Kuznetsova at 11 or 12 turning up for tennis with rock-band T-shirts and giant soda bottles. I heard 30 minutes of Kuznetsova being typically funny, engaging, observant, introspective.

And I wound up marvelling at a disconnect and thinking: if people in certain regions have not warmed to this accomplished personality and often do not even know who she is, then maybe people in certain regions either dislike tennis or cannot seem to pay attention unless hit over the head with a supermodel.

Or consider Li Na, the world No 7 player. At the recent Australian Open where she served as pioneering finalist, she revolutionised a horrid, wretched, excruciating human tradition.

In the horrid, wretched, excruciating human tradition of the on-court or on-field interview, which are held in many a sport so that we might ingest a numbing cavalcade of gibberish, nobody had ever said anything interesting until Li revealed that her pre-semi-final sleep had been insufficient because her husband snores, whereupon she imitated the snore.

Charmed went an audience suddenly unlikely to forget Li from there.

For five good years, the No 8-ranked former No 1 Jelena Jankovic, present in Dubai, has brought to sport a rare commodity: humour.

Among numerous examples, she lost a narrow French semi-final and drew real guffaws from reporters by deadpanning that she planned to spend her evening plotting suicide. She lost at Wimbledon on far-flung Court No 18 and joked it had impaired her to travel there by helicopter.

To see an elusive major title upon her smiling face would be so worthwhile that it is easy to hope some enchanted fortnight lingers in her tank.

The highly-ranked names vaguely known to many - Wozniacki, Zvonareva, Schiavone, Stosur, Azarenka - all have real and various appeal, and I found the starless Schiavone-Stosur French final doubly interesting last year even as most of the world shrugged or less.

Granted, the men occupy a superior phase through the soaring ambassadorship and lasting fame of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - makes it easier for busy fans to keep up - but the women have plenty to compel if one looks.

In an improved world Sharapova, for one, would have renown more for the compelling depth of her fight than for the fleeting sheen of her ads, one having required something supposedly more valuable than the other.

And a tennis tour perfectly rich in character would not have to call this a lull unless, of course, people in general just don't like tennis all that much.