Have you ever considered a WTA top four comprising Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova?
That’s a supremely talented quartet with a heady 32 Grand Slam singles titles between them.
And it could easily be possible – all four are active players and, as multiple major winners, are arguably the best players in the game. Except only one of them is actually competing.
As Williams continues to stockpile trophies and cement her name in the record books, Sharapova serves a doping ban, Azarenka enjoys motherhood while Kvitova recovers from a frightening knife attack. It is not clear when Azarenka and Kvitova will return – or how potent they’ll be if they do.
No sport wants its brightest talent on the sidelines. And in an ideal world, this scenario would be anomalous. Yet in WTA world, it’s been a constant scourge for the past 15 years, preventing rivalries from flourishing and stymying the success and growth of the game.
We’ve seen how successful tennis can be when a generation of gifted players emerge and take the sport to new heights. In the past decade, the rise of the ATP’s Big Four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – has done wonders for the ATP’s commercial viability, ticket sales, fan engagement and television ratings.
At the same time they’ve been winning the lion’s share of big tournaments, the Big Four have provided fans the thrill of compelling rivalries and classic matches that will be recalled for years to come. Throw in other major winners like Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro, popular talents such as Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, plus a generation of rising stars led by Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev, and the picture looks very healthy indeed.
Sure, the ATP hasn’t had it all its own way. Nadal once missed seven months of competition as he sat out the second half of 2012 with knee issues. Del Potro has been plagued with wrist injuries, missing almost three entire seasons since his breakthrough victory at the 2009 US Open. Robin Soderling was struck down with mononucleosis in mid 2011 when ranked No.5, and never played again.
Yet these instances are the exception, rather than the rule. Largely, the ATPs best players have been a healthy and consistent force at the top of the game for the better part of a decade. This is their Golden Era.
The women’s game has had similarly talented, marketable stars. Yet several factors have conspired to prevent them all competing against one another and peaking at the same time.
Since 2002, when Martina Hingis prematurely walked away from the game due to a failing body and battered confidence, there has barely been a season where at least one female star hasn’t been absent for a prolonged period.
Consider this – in a time when Federer v Nadal has occurred 35 times, Murray v Djokovic 36 times, Djokovic v Federer 45 times and Nadal v Djokovic an incredible 49 times, Sharapova v Azarenka has materialised only 15 times. Azarenka v Kvitova just seven. Serena v Kvitova a mere six. Serena has faced Sharapova and Azarenka 21 times each, but those tallies still fall far short of the stratospheric numbers posted by the ATP Big Four.
One match-up symptomatic of the WTA’s situation was the one between Serena and Kim Clijsters. Both emerged as teenage forces in the late 90s, won multiple Slams and ranked No.1. Like the men’s Big Four, Williams and Clijsters are the sorts of players you want to see jousting regularly on the biggest stages. Yet in playing careers that overlapped for 16 years, they met only nine times – and just once since 2003.
Beginning with Hingis’ first departure 15 years ago, we present a timeline of what has been an unforeseen – yet no less unfortunate – run of circumstances for the women’s game.
Imagine what could have been if this high-profile group of players had been on court and flourishing at the same time …
|2002||Oct||Martina Hingis||No.10||Left ankle injury / retirement (age 22)||Out 3 years|
|2003||May||Monica Seles||No.12||Foot injury||Never returned|
|July||Serena Williams||No.1||Left knee injury||Out 8 months|
|July||Venus Williams||No.4||Abdominal injury||Out 6 months|
|2004||May||Kim Clijsters||No.2||Wrist injury||Out 9 months (played one event)|
|May||Justine Henin||No.1||Cytomegalovirus / right knee injury||Out 10 months (played two events)|
|2005||Jan||Jennifer Capriati||No.10||Shoulder surgery||Never returned|
|Sept||Serena Williams||No.9||Knee injury / depression||Out 10 months (played one event)|
|2006||Mar||Lindsay Davenport||No.4||Back injury||Out 5 months|
|June||Venus Williams||No.12||Wrist injury||Out 8 months (played one event)|
|Sept||Lindsay Davenport||No.12||Ankle injury / pregnancy||Out 1 year|
|Oct||Mary Pierce||No.29*||Left knee injury||Never returned|
|2007||May||Kim Clijsters||No.4||Retirement (aged 23)||Out 2 years, 3 months|
|Nov||Martina Hingis||No.19||Doping ban (cocaine)||Never returned to singles|
|2008||May||Justine Henin||No.1||Retirement (aged 25)||Out 1 year, 8 months|
|Aug||Maria Sharapova||No.3||Shoulder injury||Out 9 months|
|2010||Jan||Dinara Safina||No.2||Back injury||Out 3 months**|
|July||Serena Williams||No.1||Foot injury / pulmonary embolism||Out 11 months|
|July||Justine Henin||No.13||Elbow injury||Out 6 months|
|2011||Jan||Justine Henin||No.13||Retirement (aged 28)||Never returned|
|Jun||Kim Clijsters||No.2||Assorted injuries||Out 9 months (played 3 events)|
|Sept||Venus Williams^||No.36||Sjogren’s syndrome||Out 7 months|
|2012||Aug||Kim Clijsters||No.25||Retirement (aged 29)||Never returned|
|2013||July||Maria Sharapova^^||No.3||Left hip / right shoulder injury||Out 7 months (played 1 match)|
|2016||Jan||Maria Sharapova||No.5||Doping ban (meldonium)||Out 1 year, 3 months|
|May||Victoria Azarenka^^||No.5||Knee injury / pregnancy||Out indefinitely|
|Dec||Petra Kvitova||No.11||Victim of a knife attack||Out indefinitely|
* Pierce was ranked No.6 in Feb 2006 before missing five months with a foot injury. She returned in July and played just six events before sustaining her career-ending knee injury.
^ Venus was ranked No.5 in January 2011 before sustaining a hip/abdominal injury which sidelined her for five months. She played just three more events when she returned before shutting down her 2011 season after the US Open due to her Sjogren’s diagnosis.
** although Safina missed only three months, she was never the same when she returned, and played her last ever event a year later in Madrid.
^^ Sharapova played just one match in a four-month stretch in late 2015 as she dealt with a forearm injury, while Azarenka played truncated seasons in 2014 and 2015 as she dealt with assorted injuries.
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