Monday, 14 September 2009

What does Clijsters' win say about Women's Tennis?

In April 2007, Kim Clijsters stepped out onto the red dirt court in Warsaw, Poland, in what was later to be her farewell match on the WTA Tour.

Clijsters, the Belgian former world number one, was in the midst of her swansong season, after already announcing earlier in the year that she would be leaving the tour at the end of the 2007, enabling her to concentrate on her family life.

A shock defeat, though, in the round of 16 to Julia Vakulenko, forced Clijsters to question whether there was much point in waiting till the end of the season to retire. Her heart had well and truly left the game. A week later, Clijsters announced her retirement, with immediate effect.

Two years on, now married to her long term partner, basketball player Brian Lynch, and with a baby daughter, Jada Ellie, born in early 2007, Clijsters decided that take the leap, and come back to tennis.

You would imagine, even for a top player like Clijsters once was, that coming back into the world of professional tennis, after a hiatus of over two years, would, or should, have been a baptism of fire.

That presumption, though, could not have been any further from what was to transpire, as the Belgian returned to the tour to post a couple of respectable showings in the two tour events that she entered (Quarters in Cincinnati, 3rd Round in Toronto), only to then go on and beat both Williams sisters, and finally the 9th seed Caroline Wozniacki in the final at Flushing Meadows, on her way to a second US Open title.

Clijsters' win, while storybook, must raise questions about the state of the women's game.

The fact that someone can just leave and come back two years later and still - not only compete - beat the top women who have spent their entire year striving to achieve what Clijsters achieved in a matter of just a month back on the tour, must raise questions about the state of women's tennis at the moment in time.

Clijsters, in her heyday, was certainly a great player, a deserving number one, but when compared to compatriot Justine Henin, she wasn't exactly prolific when it came to the majors. Only picking up the one grand slam title, again in New York, back in 2005.

Has the game got worse since then or has Clijsters simply just matured and maybe even got better?

She certainly had her fair share of luck on the way. Nowhere more so than in the semi final against defending champion and the self proclaimed 'true number one' Serena Williams.

On Williams' second serve, at 15-30, 5-6, one set to love down, Williams was wrongly foot faulted.

The call prompted the American into a fearsome tirade towards the line judge, who went on to report Williams to the umpire.

After already receiving a code violation for racket abuse at the end of the first set, the match referee ordered the umpire to give another code violation to Williams, which came with a point penalty.

After the foot faulted second serve and the point penalty the match was over without Clijsters having to hit a ball.

The final was straight forward by all accounts. Wozniacki, appearing in her first grand slam final of her young career, was simply outplayed by the wiser, more experienced Clijsters.

In the history of professional sport you will find, dotted through time, fairytale stories. Stories you couldn't make up. Stories that unless you were there or saw them on television you wouldn't believe. Clijsters becoming the only unseeded player to ever win the US Open, was certainly a storybook moment for her and for tennis.

In my opinion, though, this moment could not have been more poorly timed, as the state of women's tennis is consistently coming under question, as it has been ever since the retirement of Henin back in 2008.

Since the retirement of Henin, the WTA tour has been going through transition, with five players holding the number one ranking between May 2008 and September 2009 (Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic). None of which have been able to make the ranking their own.

The current debate over whether Safina is the worthy number one, considering that Serena Williams, until last night, was the holder of three of the four grand slam titles on offer, was only added to this fortnight just gone, and Clijsters' success is only going to add fuel to the fire for whoever holds the poisoned chalice that is the number one ranking.

Following Clijsters' win at Flushing Meadows there have been rumours circulating that Henin may want to follow in her country women's footsteps and also return to the WTA tour.

The tour organisers would no doubt be delighted with such a star name returning to the game. The players who are there currently, though, might have different ideas after what occurred following the return of Clijsters.

Soon, the WTA tour and its players will come through this transition phase and one day return to be strong, with great depth and aspiring young talents trying to make their name in the game.

For the time being, though, the tour will just have to go along with the old timers, who are either making a mockery of the women's game, or if your a glass half full time of person, an inspiration to every young girl trying to make a name for themselves on the WTA tour.