By Ed Salmon — @Fogmount on Twitter
Before we begin, an introduction to this series.
Ed Salmon begins a series of #Longreads articles at Tennis With An Accent in conjunction with the 2019 U.S. Open. These are longer pieces meant to provide tennis journalism and analysis you won’t generally find in the daily streams of content produced by large-scale tennis websites.
A private donor who wishes to remain anonymous financed a package of extended-length stories. Authors were vetted in consultation with the donor, but were selected by me based on availability. Roughly 15 freelancers were contacted about writing a piece, but only a portion of them responded to the invitation, Ed being one of them.
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— Matt Zemek
Enjoy Ed Salmon’s first entry in our Tennis Accent Premium series of U.S. Open feature-length articles.
No WTA player has won more than five titles in a single season since Serena Williams last did it in 2014. In 2016, 42 different women won singles titles, a number without precedent at least since the demise of wooden rackets, and 2017 broke the record again with 43. This season is on pace to reach a similar number, and no woman has won more than two titles so far this year. The WTA number one ranking has already changed hands three times this year, and odds are it will do so again after the US Open.
Some in the tennis community use words like “chaos” to describe the current state of the WTA, or say the tour is weak. A few compare it to 2008 and 2009, when injuries suffered by Serena Williams and the (temporary) retirements of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters left a power vacuum that was filled by a few players in quick succession, none of whom proved to have much staying power among the game’s true elite.
But predictability isn’t what draws people to sports, and for many, neither is extended dominance by one or two superstars. Like any global sport, tennis is an organized competition between a traveling community of athletes with different personalities and specialties. When such a competition thrives, it naturally produces surprises, a gradual succession of new generations, and an evolution of the game over time, and these developments renew the sport and keep it interesting.
A little quantitative analysis suggests that recent changes in the WTA may be part of an encouraging long-term trend. And bringing in a perspective from ecology—the science of competition for limited resources among communities of natural species—casts the present and future of the WTA in a much more positive light.
Whether one chooses to see the WTA as gaining depth, approaching parity, or descending into chaos, perhaps the most intuitive way to measure the trend is to look back at how many titles have been won by the most successful player in each season.
There are up and down years—some seasons dominated by big stars like Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, and of course Serena Williams, and other transitional years of relative parity. But at least since the heydays of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, the overall trend has been towards less dominance by standout individuals and more sharing of the tour’s prizes among a wider assortment of players.
The trend gets even clearer when we measure the collective fortunes of all the title winners in each season, not just the most successful single player.
By looking at the average number of titles won by all the tournament champions in each season, we can account for the fact that the number of events varies somewhat from season to season, and see to what extent prizes are monopolized by a select few or shared more evenly among many. Here the trend is gradual but very clear—the era of dominance by one or two players at a time is waning, and it isn’t just a fluke of short-term variations in the talent pool.
It isn’t a question merely of the number of players winning titles, either. More than most sports, tennis is a game with many different niches. Not only is it played outdoors in a variety of different locations, each with its unique weather conditions and social atmosphere, on and off the court.
It is played on several different surfaces, each with its own unique characteristics, and its seasons have ebbs and flows, with big tournaments where the elites focus their maximum effort and off-weeks where the obscure and the undiscovered find rare opportunities to shine.
The different surfaces and conditions help make a wide range of playing styles viable, and at certain tournaments, players with the optimal style have a good chance of beating players with more overall skill and experience. In such an environment, a larger number of players sharing success necessarily implies a greater diversity of players getting a chance to thrive.
That brings us to ecology, which teaches us that a more diverse ecosystem is a more productive one. A natural community like an old-growth forest that supports many different species, each succeeding in its own niche, makes more efficient use of the various resources available.
Any one species will be well suited to live on certain patches of ground and will specialize in using certain resources efficiently, but won’t grow as well on other patches and will leave other resources underused.
A multitude of unique species finding success, each adapted to different conditions and sources of energy and nutrients, means a greater fraction of the available energy will end up supporting life rather than dissipating and contributing only to entropy.
A more diverse ecosystem is also a more beautiful one, full of myriad colors, sounds, subtleties, intricate spaces, and surprises.
The world’s great forests are destinations for millions of visitors, but travelers often wish they could teleport instantaneously past monocultures like factory farms, or marginal habitats like deserts where only a few species scratch out a living.
A greater diversity of tennis players winning titles means chances for fans to experience more new and novel styles of play, and more chances for players to hone their skills by playing against a greater variety of opponents.
Now, there are different kinds of diversity. We might loosely compare the current state of the ATP tour, which has been dominated by the same three or four superstars for 14 years now, to a factory farm. A small number of species consume an enormous share of the key resources, choking out others and leaving little to sustain the development of newcomers that might threaten their dominance.
If those few superstars were to suddenly depart the tour, we can imagine the sort of transitory diversity that might result, with a multitude of rough-edged players brawling clumsily over a sudden wealth of titles, ranking points, and prize money that previously seemed out of reach.
Given time, such a sudden diversity of upstarts suddenly emerging into full sunlight would eventually mature into a stable, productive tennis ecosystem. But in the short run, the undeveloped menagerie rushing to occupy the ruins left by the departed superstars might be vulnerable to getting dominated by a lone hotshot with the talent to exploit the situation and hog most of the resources before the others could adapt.
The agriculture industry calls such specialists in rapidly dominating disturbed ground weeds, and spends billions of dollars a year trying to eliminate them.
Tennis experienced a different kind of systemic disturbance a few decades ago when rapidly developing modern racket technology made it possible for players to hit with unprecedented power and combine it with accuracy in a way that was never possible before.
The increased importance of power meant that suddenly the ideal physique and skill set to become a star tennis player changed. In the WTA, this likely contributed to the successive dominance of Seles, Graf, and the Williams sisters, as each raised the ante of power tennis. In a way, they may have been the weeds of their era.
An aside, before fans of those particular stars get too upset: being a weed isn’t a bad thing, in itself. In a healthy, diverse, wild ecosystem, the plants people call weeds occupy their own limited niches in limited numbers, and fit in harmoniously most of the time with other species in their communities.
We only call them weeds when they become too numerous where we don’t want them, usually because we have inadvertently given them an opening by disturbing the ground for our own (sometimes misguided) purposes.
Coming back to the future of the WTA, the kind of diversity we see in the sport now looks like a gradual, natural succession that should support a thriving, sustainable ecosystem in the years to come, and not like the ATP hypothetical that led us into the weeds above.
Already this season, 12 different women have won the first titles of their careers. This is a fairly high number by historical standards, which will suggest chaos to some, but already three of those women have backed up their initial success by winning a second title. All but one of them are 25 years old or younger (Petra Martic being the exception at 28), and half of them are under 23.
They play a diverse assortment of styles, spanning a range that includes conventional ball-strikers, all-court attackers, tough counterpunchers, crafty defenders, and unique combinations that draw from multiple categories. Most are likely to continue to develop their games over time and grow into perennial contenders.
Among the more established title winners this season, we have ever-dangerous players like Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, who have been stocking their trophy cabinets year after year for some time and yet are still under 30.
We have Simona Halep, who held the number one ranking for most of last season and at age 27, is still within reach of retaking it this year.
We have the two young stars who have most recently traded the top slot between them—Ash Barty, whose combination of touch, slice, an explosive forehand, and all-court agility isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen at the top of the women’s game recently, and Naomi Osaka, whose mental ups and downs over the past few months shouldn’t obscure the fact that she still has all the fundamentals to be a major star for a long time.
Among other power hitters we have late bloomer Kiki Bertens and young guns who have already built giant-killing reputations like Aryna Sabalenka and Dayana Yastremska. We have many other very dangerous players with very notable accomplishments in the recent past—too many of them too enumerate here.
And of course, we have veteran stars who are still with us—Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, and Victoria Azarenka—any of whom could still produce a surge and echo her former glory at any moment.
The diversity of niches in tennis means that we should expect more from it than monopolizing superstars, or rivalries of two or three contenders that play out over and over again for years. Different players like different tournaments. Every player has good and bad days, and in a truly deep and competitive field, it should take five, six, or seven good days in a row for a player to win a title.
Dominance by a few is less a sign of strength at the top than it is a sign of weakness elsewhere, or of disturbed equilibrium that preceded it, and it means the sport isn’t making the most efficient possible use of its resources to nurture diverse talent.
The fact that the WTA currently has so many contenders with so many styles from multiple generations, most of whom still have significant room for development, should give us hope that it is leading the way to a new flowering of the sport.
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