The golden generation that never was

Published by Matt Trollope

Despite Kim Clijsters (R) retiring as recently as 2012 and Serena Williams remaining active, the pair played just one match - their US Open 2009 semifinal, pictured above - since 2003; Getty Images
Since the turn of the century, the WTA has had all the ingredients at its fingertips to develop its own answer to the Big Four. Yet it’s never materialised.

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 …

Year Month Player Ranking Circumstance Outcome
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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