Women’s tennis needs a leader

So much for Maria Sharapova as tennis’ reborn "it girl."

While men’s tennis thrives on Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal making history every few months, the women’s game plays on without a leader.

When Sharapova won her first French Open a few weeks ago and became No. 1 again, bringing her star power along, the question was whether women’s tennis finally had a leader it could count on and build from, or whether Sharapova was only "It" in lieu of anyone else.

On Monday, she lost to 15th seed Sabine Lisicki 6-4, 6-3 in the fourth round at Wimbledon and will lose her No. 1 ranking when Wimbledon is over.

And just like that, women’s tennis is a mess again.

“Obviously, what I achieved a few weeks ago doesn’t just go away in a few minutes,” she said. “I’ll have that for the rest of my career.

“Of course you want to stay at the top as long as you can. Obviously, everyone guns for that spot.”

Sharapova will have held it for 21 days this time, winning a total of three matches. She has had a big year and might even be the best player on tour now. But women’s tennis needs a dominant presence, and Wimbledon is the place to prove it.

She’ll be replaced at the top most likely by Victoria Azarenka, who won the Australian Open and held No. 1 before Sharapova. Then Azarenka started losing. Agnieszka Radwanska also has an outside shot at No. 1.

But no one can hold on to the No. 1 ranking in women’s tennis. As soon as someone gets it, she drops it, falls apart, burns out, gets hurt or whatever. The line just keeps getting longer, with Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, Azarenka, Sharapova and even Serena Williams.

Roger Federer, meanwhile, advanced to his 33rd consecutive quarterfinal in a major. That covers more than eight years.

What the women’s game really needed was for Sharapova to play Williams in the Wimbledon final. They are the top two names, the top two endorsers, and their fan bases don’t like each other one bit.

Through the years, Sharapova has gotten to Williams fans, who see a tall, blonde, white Barbie Doll with the typical tennis/supermodel look getting more endorsements, and sometimes more attention, than the more accomplished Serena. It’s only recently, though, that Sharapova, recovering from career-threatening shoulder surgery, has gotten back into position to be a threat to Williams.

Meanwhile, Williams lost early at the Australian Open to a player outside the top 50, and then lost in the first round of the French Open. It was her first-ever first-round loss at a major.

At Wimbledon, Williams has not looked good, has been strangely emotional and even somewhat immobile. Her confidence seems to be shot after the French. But she keeps winning, barely. On Monday, she beat unseeded Yaroslava Shvedova 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.

“I feel like I can do a lot better,’’ Williams said, "which is very comforting, because if this is my best, I’m in trouble.’’

Williams will play Tuesday against defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, who reached No. 2 seven months ago and now has dropped all the way to No. 7.

This was a big opportunity for women’s tennis, not only to get a little attention, but also to stick it in the face of Gilles Simon.

Simon, the 13th-ranked male player, was recently voted onto the board of the men’s tour. One of his first statements during Wimbledon was that women players should not be paid as much as the men.

He was wrong, of course. The women and the men make up the majors equally. But Simon, accused of sexism, stood by his comments. He said it was a matter of who is bringing in more revenues.

“I’m sure there are a few more people that watch my matches than his,” Sharapova said.

Simon said that, of course, more people watch Sharapova. But he pointed to the top of the men’s game, and asked whether more people watch Sharapova or Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.

And which one brings in more revenues?

It has become an issue, with Williams pointing out the hard work her sister Venus, and Billie Jean King, had done in getting equal pay. She also said that more people watch Sharapova than Simon because “she’s way hotter than he is.”

That might not be the best argument, but it does go to marketability.

Andy Murray gave a non-committal answer, something about the women being able to play doubles as well as singles because they play only best-of-three sets instead of best-of-five. It sounded as if he were supporting Simon, but he would not go that far.

But while Simon is wrong about the pay issue — repeat: He is wrong about the pay issue — he is right about the differences at the top of the men’s game vs. the top of the women’s game. The women’s game has had eight different winners in the past nine majors.

It needs a leader or two, and the only quick fixes would be Williams or Sharapova. Or both. But they have played each other just eight times since Sharapova beat Williams in the Wimbledon final in 2004.

Radwanska and Azarenka are fine players, but the game is now leaning on Williams again this week. The "it girl" lost, and yet again, one of the top rivalries in tennis goes unplayed.