Tennis is a cruel sport.
A seemingly endless grind, a single season spans nearly ten months across six continents. Where athletes on team sports sign contracts guaranteeing a paycheck, the math is much simpler for a tennis player. Win, and collect ranking points and prize money. Lose, and be content with the minimum of each.
With no solid foundation, a player cannot afford to risk bouts of injury or apathy, lest she forfeit the chance to put her hand in that elusive pot restricted to the game’s elite. One-namers like Serena, Venus and Maria have paid their dues as multiple Slam champions and ambassadors to the sport. If ever they suffer a prolonged absence from the game, the Tour is only too obliged to make their return as seamless as their reign atop the rankings had been.
Where, then, does that leave the game’s more temporal stars, the ones who are “good for tennis,” but not necessary to the sport’s survival? The ones who maintain the backbone of the Tour for a decade or better, and even indulge in a little glory hunting of their own, only to find the twilight of their careers colder than expected?
Such seems to be the case as the WTA event in Rome wraps up its first day of main draw play. Two former French Open champions, Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both suffered brutal losses of the emphatic variety. The hometown favorite Schiavone got out to an early lead against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens only to fade after losing the opening set in a tiebreaker. To say Kuznetsova lost today would imply that she showed up in the first place; facing a junior French Open champ in Simona Halep, the Russian paled against her undersized Romanian opponent, winning only two games in a little over an hour.
Was it really two years ago that these two women played what is easily regarded as one of the best Slam encounters of the decade (if not the Open Era)? Late into the night on Hisense Arena, the veterans played nearly five hours of physical and gutsy tennis for a spot in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The see-sawing nature of the match had little to do with mental lapses or painful chokes; instead, match points were saved with stunning winners that often punctuated arduous rallies. When Schiavone, once deemed a fluke Slam champion for her run at the French Open, put away the overhead to seal a 16-14 final set, she had clinched the No. 4 ranking.
Now, with both women likely to be unseeded heading into the season’s second Slam, such a monumental night must feel like a funny memory. The Italian star had a second romp to the French Open final later in 2011. Since then, it has been a slow, painful decline in both form and motivation. Kuznetsova’s struggles have been perhaps longer, as she has attempted to make 2013 the year she comes back from a long injury layoff that saw her miss the entire second half of 2012.
But where Sharapova and the Williamses were given wildcards to tournaments in which their injury-affected rankings could no longer allow them, Kuznetsova hasn’t benefited from the same patrons. The two-time Slam champion (and former World No. 2) was forced to play qualifying into the Premier event in Dubai earlier this year, and was afforded no special seeding in Australia, where she made an improbable run to the quarterfinals.
It cannot be said that either Kuznetsova or even Schiavone fail to provide the same level of entertainment as their more illustrious peers. With flashy games and flashier personalities, both were much loved when they were stalwarts of the sport’s upper echelon, and continued to be looked on affectionately by journalists and die-hard fans alike, even as their careers appear to be entering their final chapters. Yet the odds are fair that Kuznetsova/Schiavone, once a blockbuster second week match-up, could be a first round match far from Court Philippe Chatrier.
We often don’t know what we’ve got until they’re gone, but while neither woman’s results have warranted real shake-ups in the seedings, the question of respect to worthy champions and war-weary veterans remains.