x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Women's game in dire need of some star wars

For Safina to still have top ranking shows how the scene has stagnated since Justine Henin's surprisingly early retirement.

Maria Sharapova, ranked a misleading 102 because of her time off the circuit, is hidden away in the draw for the Aegon Classic in Birmingham - a traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament.
Maria Sharapova, ranked a misleading 102 because of her time off the circuit, is hidden away in the draw for the Aegon Classic in Birmingham - a traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament.

There were four Russian women among the world's top seven at the start of the French Open so it should not be regarded as a surprise that two of them contested Saturday's final. It was a pity, though, that such a showpiece event should feature two of the renowned "chokers" on the WTA tour in Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina.

It became a question of who choked less in pursuit of the coveted Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Kuznetsova has become quite adept at failing to produce her best form on the big occasion - Safina's pathetic display ensured that she did not have to, to secure a second grand slam title. For Safina to hang on to the top ranking after such a lamentable performance is a testament to the way the women's game has stagnated since Justine Henin's surprisingly early retirement a year ago.

A sustained rivalry similar to those between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Navratilova and Steffi Graf and Graf and Monica Seles is badly required to stimulate interest and excitement. The nearest we have come to such a clash of charismatic personalities was the Williams sisters who since Venus's millennium year breakthrough at Wimbledon have amassed a total of 17 grand slam titles between them and have a head-to-head record of 10 wins apiece from their 20 battles for family bragging rights.

Cynics say that equality has been stage-managed by their father Richard over the years and their rivalry is not as fierce as it should be, but Wimbledon officials will not mind another sibling squabble on their newly-roofed Centre Court in four weeks' time. Unless, that is, some of the other box office favourites start to shine. Jelena Jankovic, who ended last season as world No 1 without having won a grand slam title - that is a stigma now attached to Safina who has lost three major finals - is overdue a moment of crowning glory, even though it is unlikely to come at a venue where she is yet to reach the quarter-finals.

Similarly her equally attractive Serbian compatriot Ana Ivanovic is another to carry the mantle of world No 1 shakily. She was on cloud nine this time last year having beaten Safina in the Roland Garros final but has done precious little since to justify that fame and fortune. She, too, is due a good run at Wimbledon, where she reached the semi-finals two years ago, but do not count on it. The unsatisfactory situation at the sharp end of the women's game, begun by Henin's exit was exacerbated by the injury- enforced absence of Maria Sharapova who spent the best part of 10 months out of action recovering from shoulder surgery.

Roland Garros was only her second comeback event and considering her rustiness she put up a creditable showing only to run out of steam and suffer an embarrassing quarter-final hammering by Slovakia's Dominika Cubulkova. Even at her peak Sharapova struggled to make an impact on the red Parisian clay, so she moves to grass in good heart and least affected by the demanding schedule which has brought so many of her counterparts to their knees in recent seasons.

Sharapova, ranked a misleading 102 because of her time off the circuit, is hidden away in the draw for the Aegon Classic in Birmingham - a traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament which she won five years ago on the way to becoming a shock Wimbledon final winner over Serena Williams. The women's game is in desperate need of somebody to pick up the baton and provide more drama in the second half of the year than has been the case in the first six months. Sharapova could be that somebody. Let us hope so.

wjohnson@thenational.ae