WTA Finals Begin Amidst Grand Slam Vs No.1 Controversy
The WTA finals began in Singapore on Sunday against the backdrop of whether it is more important to be ranked No 1 or to win a Grand Slam title. This stems from the fact that the No 1 rank changed hands several times over the year and four different players won the Grand Slam events. Indeed three of the women who rose to the No 1 ranking did not win a Grand Slam title.
Of course perhaps this unusual script was all set to be written once Serena Williams went on maternity leave following her triumph at the Australian Open in January. Indeed what happened over the next several months only underlined the fact that there is a big difference between Serena and the rest of the field.
Former world No 1 Chris Evert put it succinctly when she said ''There is such a big gap between Serena and the rest of the field that any time she is in the game there is less pressure because all these players are the underdogs. This year there was more pressure because Serena was not around. Somebody had to step up and really in my mind no one did.’’
Evert’s observations are borne out by facts. After Williams quit the scene to have her baby Jelena Ostapenko just 20 years old became the first unseeded player in the Open era to win the French Open. Then Garbine Muguruza won Wimbledon in imperious fashion. At the US Open it was the turn of Sloane Stephens. The unseeded and unheralded player capped one of the most remarkable comebacks from injury by scripting a fairy tale triumph.
Being consistently brilliant however was one quality the field lacked in the absence of Serena Williams. Ostapenko and Stephens never made it to the No 1 ranking. Conversely other top contenders like Karolina Pliskov and Simona Halep reached the No 1 rank but neither won a Grand Slam event.
Indeed the No 1 rank itself changed hands repeatedly during the year. Williams predictably held it for seven weeks at the start of the year. Then Angelique Kerber took over for five weeks in March. Thanks to the inconsistent showing of the others Williams regained it briefly for three weeks in April even as she was largely out of action. Kerber regained it for nine weeks in May before Pliskova took over for eight weeks in July. Muguruza was at the top for four weeks in September before Halep took over earlier this month and heads towards the WTA finals at the leader of the pack.
Obviously then this is a most open field and seven of the eight competing players have a mathematical chance of finishing the season as No 1. This constitutes a tennis metamorphosis of sorts when one considers that Steffi Graf and Serena each once held the top spot for 186 consecutive weeks.
So which is the more important goal for the players – to be ranked No 1 or to win a Grand Slam event?
This point has come to the fore this topsy-turvy season since in most other cases the No 1 player was also winning most of the Grand Slams or those winning Grand Slam events were almost automatically ranked No 1. Wim Fissette who has coached Halep is of the view that winning a Grand Slam title is still the most important goal for players, more than becoming No 1.
“I am sure Halep and Pliskova will feel a little more pressure now to win a Slam because they don’t want to be the player that was No 1 but did not win a Grand Slam. But this pressure is created from the outside because I am sure a lot of players would exchange careers with the careers of Caroline Wozniacki or Dinara Safina’’ (two other players in the last decade who reached the top without winning a Grand Slam that particular year),
Purely statistically it is tougher to reach the No 1 spot than to win a Grand Slam singles title. There have been 25 No 1’s since the WTA rankings were set up 42 years ago. During that span 43 different women have won major singles titles. To a great extent it is tougher to be a great tennis player for 52 weeks of the year instead of being on a really hot streak for three or four weeks of the year. ''All the same there is no denying that the players badly want to win Grand Slam titles’’ says Darren Cahill Halep’s current coach.
Halep in fact has won just one tournament of any sort (at Madrid) during the year but obviously has displayed a consistency without which she could not have risen to the No 1 spot. However as we have seen the women’s game has been producing new No 1 players at breakneck pace and even the most knowledgeable tennis follower would not want to stick his or her neck out and predict who will be the players at the top come October 29.