The State of Women's Tennis Amid All These Upsets: Who Knows?
NEW YORK -- Martina Hingis has not been out of the tennis limelight for so long that she didn't see this one coming like a big fat lob.
Is this a good sign or bad sign, she is asked? Is this wealth of success for so many different players in women's tennis a fluke or the future?
The former No. 1 grimaces.
"Every time, if there are the same champions, 'It's boring, there isn't enough depth.' And if there's depth, it's, 'Oh God, there isn't enough consistency,' so you can't ever win. So what is it now?" Hingis asked.
Good question, which is why it was asked.
What we know for sure is that for the first time since 1977, and for just the second time in the 46-year Open era, there will be eight different women finalists in the four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year.
Li Na defeated Dominika Cibulkova in the final of the Australian Open in January. Sharapova beat Simona Halep for the French Open title in June. And Petra Kvitova defeated Bouchard to capture Wimbledon in July.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Serena Williams' name is not in the preceding paragraph. But the two-time defending US Open champion is still alive and going strong here, advancing without dropping a set as she prepares to play 11th-seeded Flavia Pennetta in Wednesday's quarterfinals.
"I never thought it would be so exciting," Williams said without a hint of sarcasm of her berth in the final eight after losing in the fourth, second and third rounds of the Australian, French and Wimbledon, respectively.
Adding another asterisk, this marks only the second time in the Open era (the other in 2009) that only one top-eight seed reached the quarterfinals of a major.
Williams was joined by No. 16 Victoria Azarenka, who plays No. 17 Ekaterina Makarova in another quarterfinal Wednesday. In the other two quarters, Belinda Bencic, the 17-year-old protégé of Hingis and student of Hingis' mother, Melanie Molitor, lost to unseeded Peng Shuai, also playing in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. And Tuesday night, No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki was set to meet No. 13 Sara Errani.
So what happened to the other Grand Slam finalists?
Li, the Australian Open champ, did not enter the US Open because of a knee injury. Cibulkova, the No. 12 seed, was bounced by CiCi Bellis, the 15-year-old American, in the first round.
French Open winner Sharapova, seeded fifth here, lost to Wozniacki in the fourth round, and the second-seeded Halep fell in the third round to qualifier Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
As for No. 3 Kvitova, the Wimbledon champ lost in the third round to another qualifier, Aleksandra Krunic, while No. 7 Bouchard lost Monday in the fourth round to Makarova.
So what does this say about the state of women's tennis?
"Well," said Makarova, "I think now [that] everyone is here that we're kind of the same, yeah? Everyone is playing great tennis, great physically. ... I think now actually everyone can win the Grand Slam. Maybe like before, [there were] just two really great stars. Now you can beat everyone."
But is it really that easy?
Makarova defeated No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round at Wimbledon. Last year, she knocked off the higher-seeded Marion Bartoli and Angelique Kerber in the Australian and beat Radwanska in the fourth round of the Open.
But similar success against higher-ranked players on the WTA Tour has eluded the player who last month achieved her career-high ranking of No. 18.
"Maybe I have more motivation in Grand Slam and it's different tournament for me [than] for everyone," she theorized. "Sometimes maybe in the smaller tournament, I don't have that motivation or, you know, that feeling that I have in the Grand Slam. So that's why a lot of great players I can beat."
In other words, who knows?
Further confusing the issue is a strange 2014, ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert points out.
While normally Williams excels in Grand Slams even when she fails to get optimal results in tour events, she has reversed that trend this year. Similarly, Sharapova used to be dominant on hard courts and is now doing most of her damage on clay.
Azarenka, a two-time Slam champion and US Open runner-up the past two years, has had a mysterious rash of injury problems, and Li began the year looking as if she might grab the No. 1 ranking at some point, then also disappeared because of injury.
"If you told me this would happen at the start of the year, I would have been [surprised]," Gilbert said. "But if you're a women's player, it's an exciting time because of the opportunity. Normally in the history of women's tennis, with Steffi [Graf], Chrissie [Evert], Martina [Navratilova], Serena, there has been more dominance throughout history than the men have had. So it's an exciting time for a player."
Gilbert's colleague Cliff Drysdale, a US Open doubles champion and singles finalist, similarly calls it "a transition phase."
"I think it's just one of those things that happens and I doubt it will happen again for a long time because the history of tennis is that you have people who dominate," Drysdale said. "The women's game will slowly get back to that. But right now, a lot of different players, some older, some younger, are all vying [for the top], trying to impose themselves."
Except there is still the Serena Factor. At nearly 33, she continues to show that when she is even close to top form mentally and physically, few if any can beat her.
"She's amazing," Hingis said. "I just really admire her commitment and her will. To still be out there and get through everything. ... There are no words. Serena is Serena. Geez. Wow."
But even with the geez-wow, there is still the future to consider, and what then?
After three straight Grand Slam semifinals, including an appearance in the Wimbledon final, Bouchard was anointed the next great thing in the game. But three straight early exits in hard-court tournaments this summer -- including in her hometown of Montreal -- plus a rocky road to the fourth round here, should at least cool down some of the overzealous predictions.
Just as quickly, however, there is excitement over such under-20s as Bencic and Bellis (who lost Tuesday in the second round of the juniors), while a 21-year-old like Krunic can sneak up and surprise everyone.
"She gave a fight, and she wasn't afraid to go big on the important moments," Azarenka said after a hard-fought 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 fourth-round win over Krunic, the qualifier out of Serbia who's ranked 145th. "I was a little bit surprised that she's not that tall, and she hits the ball and unleashes her forehand with so much power. So that was quite surprising. ... She has a good future if she keeps going this way."
And Krunic's assessment?
"I don't think in tennis, especially women's tennis, is much about forehand and backhand," she said. "I know everybody can hit forehand or backhand or serve. Yeah, it's more about how you get it all together."
Which is why the future is so hard to predict.
"Serena is not going to be there forever," Gilbert reminds us. "There might be a little time with a push-and-pull over who will be next, but I get a strong sense that at some point, order will be restored and within five years we will get another Serena, Steffi, Martina, Chrissie, because there has always been a dominant woman.
"I don't know who that's going to be right now. I don't see that person yet, but I believe there will be somebody who does that. I'm not going to say it's easy to dominate, but in the [history] of women's tennis, it has happened more often than not, and I believe it will happen again."
For now, said Drysdale, enjoy the odd transition phase.
"People are attracted by names they know," he said. "But the sad part for me is that people would rather watch the Williams sisters plays doubles than watch a singles quarterfinal because they don't know these people.
"This will sort itself out. But in the meantime, it's not good or bad. It just is what it is."