Hard to pick a win­ner ahead of tour­na­ment with­out a usual dom­i­nant force on hand

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - MIKE KOREEN mko­ @mkor1980

Pick­ing a win­ner in a sig­nif­i­cant women’s ten­nis tour­na­ment these days is about as easy as get­ting a seat on the Toronto sub­way at rush hour.

Just ask for­mer world No. 1 Tracy Austin.

“I went into Wim­ble­don this year and I was say­ing ‘Gosh, there are 12 dif­fer­ent peo­ple (who could win),” Austin said on Satur­day — the first day of qual­i­fy­ing for the Rogers Cup at the Aviva Cen­tre at York Univer­sity.

“I don’t re­mem­ber an­other time since I’ve been in­volved in ten­nis … where there’s been as many women part of the con­ver­sa­tion as a pos­si­ble win­ner.”

Whether that’s the best news for fans is open to de­bate. In­di­vid­ual sports tend to rely on star power — and the women’s game is in a bit of a tran­si­tion at the top of the rank­ings.

Two of the big­gest names in the sport — Ser­ena Williams and Maria Shara­pova — are not here this week. Williams is preg­nant and says she’ll re­turn in 2018, while Shara­pova pulled out last week af­ter suf­fer­ing her sec­ond in­jury since re­turn­ing from a 15-month dop­ing ban — a tough blow to the tour­na­ment, which handed the Rus­sian a wild card.

Of all the Grand Slam champions from 2012-2015, just one will play here — 2014 Wim­ble­don win­ner Pe­tra Kvi­tova, who beat Cana­dian Eu­ge­nie Bouchard in the fi­nal that year. Victoria Azarenka (2012, 2013 Aussie Open win­ner) is play­ing a lim­ited sched­ule af­ter giv­ing birth to her first child last year and the other Grand Slam champs from those years (ex­clud­ing Williams There is no clear favourite head­ing into the Rogers Cup. Wild-card en­trant Eu­ge­nie Bouchard, seen here at Wim­ble­don last month, should be in the mix. and Shara­pova) — Li Na, Mar­ion Bar­toli and Flavia Pen­netta — have re­tired.

But it might just be a mat­ter of time be­fore new women’s stars emerge. Sure, Roger Fed­erer and Rafael Nadal are amaz­ing sto­ries on the men’s side with their suc­cess at older ages this year, but there is a deep crop of younger women with a shot to grab the spot­light.

Spain’s Gar­bine Mugu­ruza, a two-time Grand Slam win­ner, is just 23. New world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Repub­lic and No. 2 Si­mona Halep of Ro­ma­nia are both 25, but both are look­ing for their first Grand Slam ti­tles. Latvia’s Je­lena Ostapenko, 20, won the French Open this year — shock­ing, con­sid­er­ing she didn’t have a WTA cham­pi­onship to her name be­fore that. Granted, they may not be house­hold names for the ca­sual sports fan, but they’ll have every op­por­tu­nity to make big gains over the next year as we wait to see if Williams and Shara­pova can re­gain their top form. All of the cur­rent top 10 play­ers are sched­uled to be here this week, which cer­tainly isn’t al­ways the case for the an­nual Cana­dian stop.

“It’s just a re­ally in­ter­est­ing time,” said Austin, who will be pro­vid­ing com­men­tary for Rogers Sport­snet this week and will also be in­ducted into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame.

“You can say it’s deeper or you can say play­ers at the top have not been able to step up on a con­sis­tent ba­sis. You can look at it ei­ther way.”

It’s not like all the prom­i­nent fig­ures have dis­ap­peared, ei­ther. Venus Williams, at 37, has made two Grand Slam fi­nals this year — and Ser­ena’s sis­ter will be the head­liner here on Mon­day night. Then, of course, there is Bouchard, 23, who re­mains a big name de­spite her tum­ble down the rank­ings. She’ll open here Tues­day af­ter­noon.

“I think it’s a time of op­por­tu­nity,” Rogers Cup tour­na­ment di­rec­tor Karl Hale said. “Venus is still hang­ing in there, with two fi­nals this year in Slams. Ge­nie has the op­por­tu­nity to move in there. It’s a great op­por­tu­nity for a player to take over as the kind of leader of women’s ten­nis.”

This week, one of many pos­si­ble names will have the chance to take an im­por­tant step for­ward with a key tour­ney ti­tle in the leadup to the fi­nal Grand Slam of the year — the U.S. Open in New York.

“Fre­quently in the past, when you had Martina Navratilova, Jus­tine Henin or Ser­ena Williams, they might not win it, but you had a clear favourite,” Austin said. “Then you had two or three be­hind them and that was the end of the con­ver­sa­tion. No­body at the French Open or Wim­ble­don (this year) was the clear favourite what­so­ever.”


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