IT’S WIDE OPEN
Hard to pick a winner ahead of tournament without a usual dominant force on hand
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.”