The end of another highly entertaining Australian Open last month bought an incredible run to an end. No, I’m not living in a parallel universe where Andy Murray battled past Novak Djokovic to end Britain’s 75,000 year long wait for a men’s singles champion at a slam. Rather, the three set victory of Kim Clijsters over Li Na marked the first time that a women’s grand slam final has gone to three sets since, wait for it – Wimbledon 2006. For a good long while now, the women’s game has been widely considered a poorer, duller version of the men’s, something which when you look at the level of openness and competitiveness of the two games, is simply incorrect. Could the tides of public opinion be about to turn?
The Australian Open men’s draw this year had only two former champions in it, Federer and Djokovic. At most Grand Slams nowadays one can be relatively certain that Federer or Nadal will claim the title, outside of which you give three, maybe four men a shot as outsiders, Murray and Djokovic chief amongst them. In the women’s game, the last six years have seen a total of ten different incumbents at No.1 in the WTA rankings, the ATP (governing body for men’s tennis) just 2. Further to this, the statistic about women’s grand slam finals, while fascinating, doesn’t really tell the full story. Not only do the tournaments progress with a wider variety of genuine contenders and fewer dead cert victories in the early rounds, but a best-of-three sets final can still be incredibly even and yet be won inside the full distance. And while it is true that many recent female slam finals have been dull, the same is equally valid on the men’s side. The straight sets victory of Djokovic over Murray means that since the start of 2006, more than half of men’s grand slam finals have been won in such a manner, which in a best-of-five set match does constitute one-way traffic.
Yet while this unpredictability in the women’s game might appear to be in its favour, it actually creates difficulties for the WTA. Whereas the average tennis fan can go into a tournament rooting for either Federer or Nadal, and knowing that in all likelihood one of them will manage a decent tilt at the title, the same is not true of female tennis. Men’s tennis benefits massively from an easily digested predictability, in which once you’ve realised that Nadal is injury prone and Federer increasingly inconsistent, you’ve got the game licked. This rivalry creates big heroes, which is marketable and exciting to a certain point, but following the WTA tour is a much more challenging and intriguing pursuit. Men’s tennis is like the SPL of world sport, a near-perpetual two-horse race; the women’s game has been sufficiently competitive and exciting to attract entice former world No.1s Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Clijsters herself back on court after they had previously retired. Even the Williams sisters, who had begun to look bored of the game and were experimenting with other interests and playing tennis part-time just a few years ago, have fully recommitted. Unfortunately, the big showcase of tennis is the grand slam, and men’s tennis has come out on top in the last few years with some of the greatest finals in history, a couple at Wimbledon featuring Federer standing out. The WTA must hope that matches like the Clijsters-Na final can begin to win back some ground for their game. Could 2011 be the year that the sporting world realises women’s tennis more than matches its more popular male rival?