Hope springs eternal in the early part of the spring, especially at Indian Wells when the desert is just starting to bloom all over.
But the WTA Tour’s younger set has much to be concerned about these days, as the circuit has largely been taken over by veterans. Even with Serena and Venus Williams skipping the tournament again, the favorites are pretty clear: seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin, three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, and two-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters.
While none of them are high seeds in the various stages of their comebacks, all have something to cheer about: Henin by reaching the final of Australian Open in just her second tournament back; Sharapova by winning the recent event in Memphis and Clijsters by storming to the 2009 U.S. Open crown.
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Of the 16 seeds at Indian Wells, only four can still be considered youngsters: second seed Caroline Wozniacki, No. 3 Victoria Azarenka, No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 13 Yanina Wickmayer. Other than Poland’s crafty Radwanska, who appears to have hit the wall with her talent level, the other three are powerful athletes with big enough weapons to have done major damage.
So why hasn’t a player such as Wozniacki improved much since she reached the final of the U.S. Open? Perhaps she has, but it’s entirely possible that the likes of the Belgians, Sharapova and even two-time French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova have a lot more in their repertoire than she does, or maybe they just want it a little more.
Wozniacki says she takes her losses in stride and tries not to get overly concerned about them. This year, she fell in the fourth round of the Australian Open and the second round of Dubai. For a top-five player, that’s called underachieving.
“If I was thinking that the world would go under now, I’d get nervous and not know what to do with myself and do all the wrong things. If I don’t win today, I’m sure I’ll win tomorrow,” said the 19-year-old Dane, the only teenager in the top 20.
Maybe Azarenka will too, and she’s certainly a delight to watch when her head is in the match and she’s ripping the ball, but just how many losses is she going to take to the older elite players before she learns that thinking her way through points is the only way she’s going to take the next step?
As Henin implied, it’s obvious that some of the kids can play, but it’s still possible to play with their heads.
“Serena proved at the most important events that she’s at her best. Maria will come back for sure and Kim already proved she was at her best level,” said Henin, who crushed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-2, 6-2 in the first round of Indian Wells on Wednesday. “There are two generations and I’m part of the older one. The younger ones are coming pretty strong but experience makes a difference. There are a lot of good players coming and I’m sure they can make it, but when, I don’t know.”
The younger players may be growing tired of hearing about a new comeback story every year. Martina Hingis returns and drives to the top 10. Clijsters comes back as a mother and wins the U.S. Open. Henin races back on court and takes over the Australian Open before falling to Serena.
“They came in as underdogs and no one expected them to do anything, and they could play really relaxed and that helped them,” Wozniacki said. “They are experienced and great athletes. Every time they win, it’s a great story that they’ve even won a match, people talk about it and they have the crowd behind them as well. And they are tough.”
What the veterans can teach the youngsters is how to negotiate the ups and downs of the season, because there are bound to be so many. All of them have learned that the hard way, whether by being too tough on themselves or letting themselves off too easy, being too stubborn in their approach to the game, by underestimating their opponents (or overestimating themselves), driving themselves to the brink of exhaustion, or ignoring the importance of fitness. Kuznetsova says that she doesn’t enjoy the week-in, week-out grind as much as she used to, but knows how to manage herself better, which is why she was able to win her second Grand Slam title in 2009 after a couple of humdrum years.
“I’m different. I like to analyze a lot,” she said. “I’m taking a different way. Some days I don’t have great days, but I love tennis. Some days I’m depressed, but when I take a rest, I’m hungry again.”
Henin had to take a year and a half off from competition before she was famished again, but she too is being careful of overplaying. Indian Wells is her first tournament in five weeks, but now she has clear goals of gradually building her game up to be ready to roar at the French Open and Wimbledon.
She realizes that that she wasn’t quite there yet in the Australian Open final against Serena. But rather than chide herself for losing the three-setter like she might have done in the past, she’s put the defeat in perspective.
“I was still a bit short mentally, emotionally and physically,” she said. “I was close and far away at the same time. I had always had the feeling that we had to go step by step and maybe it was a little early. Maybe it’s better this way because it’s going to help me work on new things, take my time and relax. (But) mentally I need tennis, I need to play.”
Wozniacki’s personality is a bit like that of Clijsters: bubbly and seemingly carefree off court, understated yet occasionally fierce on court. She isn’t as bold as Serena, is nowhere as intense as Sharapova or Henin, but she realizes she has ability and refuses to brag about it. Maybe she realizes that her time is about to come, but doesn’t feel right tooting her own horn.
Being ranked No. 4 "puts me closer to No. 1, which is the main goal,” she said. “You feel like it’s right in front of you, but hopefully I have a lot more years in front of me and if it’s tomorrow or five years from now, it doesn’t matter.”
The only player on the WTA Tour who doesn’t need a title the size of Indian Wells currently is Aussie Open champion Serena Williams, who is sitting home in L.A., which should make the fortnight highly competitive. Top seed Kuznetsova has done little this year, both Clijsters and Sharapova suffered shock losses in Melbourne, fourth seed Elena Dementieva is aging and can’t waste a moment, and due to their slumps, Serbians Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, both former No. 1’s, have entered prove-it seasons.
All of the young players could use something to crow about too, but as eighth seed Samantha Stosur of Australia said, the probability lies in another veteran’s title run.
“Any of the younger ones can do it, but Serena, Venus, Maria, Kim and Justine know week and week out what it takes to do it and you have to expect them to make it through any tournament they play,” Stosur said.