Can the WTA’s top four emulate their ATP counterparts?
One man started it all in 2003. Roger Federer, still struggling to make a name for himself in Grand Slam tournaments since knocking off Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, finally achieved his goal of winning a Grand Slam title.
He won Wimbledon in 2003 by defeating Mark Philippoussis in the final. Little did he know that he would start the greatest dominance men’s tennis has ever witnessed.
Since then, he has been joined by three sparring partners, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Nadal was already famous even before he won his first Grand Slam title, at the French Open in 2005. As a 17-year-old kid in 2004, he upset Roger Federer in the third round in Miami and had won his first ATP match as a 15-year-old in 2002.
So it was no surprise he was able to beat Federer in their first Grand Slam match, in the semi-finals of the 2005 French Open. He followed it up by defeating Mariano Puerta, who had defeated Nikolay Davydenko in the semis, in the final.
Nadal has since won another six French Open titles, two Wimbledon titles, and one Australian Open and US Open title each. Additionally, he has an Olympic gold medal from Beijing in 2008, making him the youngest man to complete a Career Golden Slam.
Novak Djokovic was the next to join Federer and Nadal at the top, winning his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open.
Despite his continuing dominance, he would have to wait another three years to capture his second Grand Slam title, also at the Australian Open, in 2011.
He would later go on to capture Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as the World No. 1 ranking.
Last year, he captured his fifth Grand Slam title, the Australian Open, in an epic five-set final against Rafael Nadal. While he wasn’t as dominant in the Slams last year, he still enjoyed a solid season by his standards.
And finally, Andy Murray. He joined Federer, Nadal and Djokovic at the top by reaching his first Grand Slam final at the 2008 US Open, losing to Federer.
He was unsuccessful in three further attempts, at the 2010 and 2011 Australian Opens as well as Wimbledon in 2012. But the latter final was one of significance as he became the first British man to reach the final at Wimbledon since Bunny Austin in 1938.
Though he started strongly, he ultimately succumbed to Federer in four sets, after which he showed his emotional side to a country which had been behind him all tournament.
Perhaps he has one man to thank for him reaching the Wimbledon final – Lukas Rosol, who beat Murray’s long-time Grand Slam tormentor, Rafael Nadal, in the second round. If that hand’t happened, Murray wouldn’t be the man he is right now.
The Wimbledon final set the precedent for Murray to dominate in his own right. At the Olympics, Murray set up a final rematch against Roger Federer, but this time he was able to turn the tables on him, win the gold medal and deny Federer a Golden Career Slam (just 24 hours after Serena Williams claimed that honour).
Then, at the US Open, he won his way to the final where he faced, and defeated, Novak Djokovic in an epic five-set thriller. This saw him become the first British man since Fred Perry in 1936 to win a Grand Slam singles title, and the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and US Open title back-to-back.
Ironically, it was Murray who denied Nadal the chance to achieve that, beating him in the semi-finals of the 2008 US Open.
I can see comparisons to the current ATP’s Big Four (soon to be three due to Rafael Nadal’s continuing absence) to the current WTA’s Top Four (Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska).
September 11 was already a famous date in the United States in 1999, because it was the very day that Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title, at 17 years of age.
She defeated Martina Hingis, the 1997 champion, to become the first African-American to win a Grand Slam singles title.
She has since completed the “Serena Slam” (winning all four majors simultaneously, between the 2002 French Open and 2003 Australian Open), way before Roger Federer started his own history-making run of winning Grand Slam tournaments.
To cap it all off, she won the Olympic gold medal on Wimbledon’s grass courts last year.
But Serena Williams has not had it all her way in the last 13 years. She has suffered numerous injuries in her career, which is normal among top tennis players.
Injuries grounded her in 2003, 2006 and 2010, preventing her from establishing a Roger Federer-like dominance on the WTA Tour. In 2012, Serena Williams enjoyed a relatively injury-free season and this is what has led to the dominance we are seeing today.
Maria Sharapova emulated Serena Williams in winning her first Grand Slam title at 17 years of age and on her seventh Grand Slam attempt.
Ironically, it was Williams she defeated in the final of Wimbledon in 2004, when the American was chasing a hat-trick of Wimbledon titles. She has since achieved great things in tennis, completing a Career Grand Slam and winning the Olympic Silver Medal last year.
However, Sharapova, like Williams, has not had it all her way either. A shoulder injury saw her sidelined from the sport for ten months and subsequently her ranking dropped to World No. 126, just barely avoiding needing to qualify for the 2009 French Open, which was her comeback tournament.
Miraculously, she managed to reach the final eight, five years after she reached her first final-eight at a Grand Slam tournament, the 2004 French. The next two years didn’t go so well for Sharapova, failing to reach the quarter-finals at seven subsequent Grand Slam tournaments.
But 2012 was her most consistent year on the Tour since 2006.
She reached two Grand Slam finals (winning the French Open) and was a semi-finalist at the US Open. Additionally, she finished the year ranked World No. 2.
If she can continue with her consistency, who knows, she could become World No. 1 again.
Like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova before her, Victoria Azarenka had to defeat a past champion for her first Grand Slam title, and it was at last year’s Australian Open.
She crushed Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in one hour and twenty-two minutes, and with that, she did what Natasha Zvereva couldn’t 24 years ago – win a Grand Slam singles title or become World No. 1.
She has since dominated at will and last year she won 69 matches – more than any other woman on the Tour. Azarenka is the only one of the big four to make it through to the final of this year’s Australian Open.
She will defend her title against China’s Li Na.
And finally, Agnieszka Radwanska. She first shot to stardom at the 2007 US Open, when she defeated Maria Sharapova (the defending champion) in the third round.
At her next tournament, the 2008 Australian Open, she knocked out then-World No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova en route to reaching her first Grand Slam quarter-final; she repeated the dose at Wimbledon later that year.
She only started to assert her dominance last year, reaching her first Wimbledon final and reaching a career high ranking of World No. 2.
Grass has always been considered to be her best surface, as she won Wimbledon in 2005 as a junior. Her worst ever result at the All England Club came in 2011, when she was defeated by Petra Cetkovska in the second round; she has reached the fourth round or better on all the other occasions.
Radwanska started 2013 on a hot streak, winning thirteen matches and twenty-six sets before finally being outdone by Li Na in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open yesterday.
This streak included titles in Auckland and Sydney, but now she will have to wait until Roland Garros, where she has historically never performed so well, to capture her first Grand Slam title. With the form that she’s showing now, I can’t see her failing to capture her first major title this year.
I can see the WTA’s Top Four dominating in the long term. And that’s bad news for fans of players ranked below World No. 12, as it means certain defeat in the Grand Slams before the quarter-finals.
But you may never know, these players can spring a surprise. Just look at Dominika Cibulkova at Roland Garros and Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year.
They played really well to beat the top seeds at those respective tournaments, only to lose their next match immediately after.