Talk about art imitating life. Ana Ivanovic won the Bali Tournament of Champions, which by design is the Tournament of Also-Rans (tournament winners who were not among the elite right to qualify for the recently completed WTA Championships). Isn't that a telling reflection of the state of the WTA?
Ivanovic is barely 24 and a former No. 1 and Grand Slam singles champion, yet just three years after her breakthrough, she's the queen also-ran.
These days, you can shuttle from the pedestal to the pedestrian in no time at all. Now that the anticlimactic Bali event is over (only in tennis would you have a tournament following the one billed as the ultimate, season-ending showdown of the best players), we can look at some of the questions left hanging, to be decided, forgotten or further complicated in about two months, when 2012 gets underway:
1. Will anyone step up to be a reliable, consistent and dedicated champion in the mold of a Chris Evert, Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova? That's a tough one, partly because for the past few years Serena Williams has been there to dominate when it mattered, while fiddling around with all kinds of side projects and ambitions.
Should Williams no longer be able to step in and blast her way to any title she wants (and let's face it, she is 30 and carrying significant weight), her rivals and the next wave of players will have a greater chance to assert themselves on a regular, credible basis.
2. Is Petra Kvitova for real? In this, her breakout year, 21-year-old Kvitova traveled from No. 34 to No. 2. She also won her first major (Wimbledon) and finished the year with a perfect record on indoor hard courts (21-0). Finally, she led the Czech Republic to its first Fed Cup triumph in 28 years, which took place on the home court of the most successful team since the turn of the century, Russia.
I like that Kvitova has a big, aggressive game. I like even more that she has quickly learned to control the damage created by lapses in a game that features a high degree of difficulty. This young lady is learning patience, and she takes the breaks in stride. That's the sign of a potentially great player. I'd like to see her overcome her shyness and apparent humility. Add a little swagger to that step, a la her Czech forebear Martina Navratilova, and the sky is the limit.
3. Will Serena win more majors? I think she'll contend, but I think she'll have a hard time winning those majors unless she really dedicates herself and plays a lot. The combination of her age and her recent, growing tendency to get injured is a candle burning at both ends.
4. What are the odds that Caroline Wozniacki can hang on to her No. 1 ranking? Slim to none. Although she's just 21 and has time -- and certainly room -- to improve, that enormous window she had in 2011 after finishing 2010 on top was closing fast by the end of this year.
Wozniacki gradually ran out of inspiration but lucked out because her rivals ran out of time. I think she'll have lost that No. 1 ranking by the time the Australian Open is over.
5. Who will be the next woman to win the first Grand Slam of her career? I'm pretty high on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who seems a more gifted player than tough-but-one-dimensional Victoria Azarenka.
Pavlyuchenkova just turned 20, and she still appears to be carrying baby fat and an immature game. But she has great gifts (power, range, a strong serve, good hands) and a lot more upside than any other woman I see out there.
These days in the WTA, though, it's not about winning a major or even two, it's about what you can do to consolidate your position once you've made that most significant breakthrough. The nature of the women's game may have changed too much for one or more women to dominate, but they were saying that about the men's game, too, before Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal came along.
The tour is still there to be dominated, and it may be easier in 2012 than in most previous years of this period we'll all remember as the Williams Era.