Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Don't call it a comeback

You're Serena Williams. You used to world's best female tennis player, but you're now plummeting in the rankings due to a combination of boredom, injury and delusions of winning an Oscar. Your Neiman-Marcus bill is due, and you need quick cash. What do you do? What do you do?
You return to the tennis courts. You enter a Tier III tournament where the top seeds are Patty Schnyder and Anastasia Myskina, so it's a cushy draw. You make the semis, losing to the rebounding Vera Zvonareva.
Wow! everyone says. That's pretty good for your first tournament back. She's going to win Slams again, they say. She's a contender again!
Not really. Consider this: Serena is now ranked 108. Most people would argue that there aren't 107 players in the world that are better than she is. That is true. So where in the rankings does she really belong?
Top 5? Nadia Petrova would wax Serena right now, and possibly for the rest of Serena's career.
Top 10? With all things equal, Williams could take Elena Dementieva, Schnyder and Mary Pierce. With the exception of Pierce, the others are match-tough, and you'd have to pick current No. 10 Lindsay Davenport over Serena.
Top 20? Nope. With the exception of Myskina, Serena is not up to challenging Nicole Vaidisova, Anna-Lena Groenefeld or Ana Ivanovic. She might overtake Martina Hingis (ranked No. 13) by sheer power, so that's not a fair fight.
Top 30? Warmer. Venus (No.24) against Serena? I'd go with Venus. Rumor has it the elder Williams sister still occasionally play tennis. And Jelena Jankovic, who beat Venus at Wimbledon, can do the same to Serena. But players like Marion Bartoli and Nathalie Dechy wouldn't come close.
Although Zvonareva is ranked No. 37 right now, we won't go there with Serena. Will she get into the top 50 again? Sure. Can she challenge for Slams? Maybe. Has she wasted some valuable time in her career? Absolutely. It's going to be a long road, like it is for Venus and for Andy Roddick, because they are slowly coming to the revelation that it's not all power. Literally, there are at least 100 players with better technique than Serena. But she's still ridiculously talented. My guess is that the end of the year finds her nestled comfortably in the mid-30s. It's hard to see her cracking the top 15 again. It's also hard to see her winning a major. You have to assume that she'd meet one of the top 6 players in the world from quarters on. While she's been gone, other players have matured and won majors. What's happened in women's tennis since Serena started riding the bench is like what would have happened in basketball if there had been no Michael Jordan. She gave the rest of the field a taste of success.
I don't get the idea they'll return the favor.

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