It's as official as these things get: Women's tennis is on a roll. Did you notice that the three-set Australian Open final battle between Kim Clijsters and Li Na more or less killed the men's final in the television ratings war Down Under?
The women drew fully 21 percent better than the men, a significant number when you consider the prominent role tennis, and the Australian major, play on the island continent's sports calendar. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the women's final outrated the men's final by almost 300,000 viewers. The women's final won despite being on Saturday, the night of the week with the fewest TV viewers.
OK, it needs to be said that the men's final was going up against an important Aussie national cricket team match. It isn't hard to imagine scores of sports fans punching the keys on the remote after they got a glimpse of what Novak Djokovic was doing to Andy Murray in one of the least-competitive Grand Slam finals in recent memory.
Still, let's keep in mind that even if "Aussie Kim" Clijsters has a special relationship with Australia, the women's final had less star power than its opposite number. Clijsters was the No. 3 seed and Li was No 9; Djokovic also was a 3, but Murray was a No. 5. And if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were missing in action, so were those familiar names Serena, Venus, Maria and Justine.
Yet the women hit another high-water mark when the WTA issued its most recent rankings: For the first time ever, the top 10 is comprised of women from 10 different nations. This is remarkable, and to some degree purely coincidental (throw another Russian into the mix and there goes the headline). But it's also kind of sexy, and a great advertisement for the game, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the day-to-day game.
Here's the strange thing. Right up until the start of this year, WTA-bashing was a popular and seemingly justifiable pastime. The lack of a dominant champion, the rate of attrition (even Clijsters at one point "retired" from tennis only to return as good, if not better, than ever), the apparent lack of commitment to the week-in, week-out tour, even the rate of injury (former world No. 1 Dinara Safina and multiple Grand Slam champ/former No. 1 Maria Sharapova are still trying to mount comebacks) were all seen as harming the WTA product as well as its image.
But things change quickly in sports. In 2010, the WTA coughed up wonderful feel-good stories in Francesca Schiavone and, to lesser extent, Slammin' Sammy Stosur. It gave us a new No. 1 in a charming and popular Caroline Wozniacki, who successfully addressed whatever commitment deficit the WTA faces. And in Clijsters, the WTA gave the world a champion with whom everyone could connect. She may not be an "ambassador" for the sport in the strict sense, but she is beloved and admired around the world.
And, on a purely game-based front, the shortcomings or problems of the players at the very top of the game helped build muscle at the midlevel, which in turn helped produce a terrific, competitive Australian Open. A decade ago, a Victoria Azarenka would have been viewed as a predestined Grand Slam champion. Not anymore. The WTA is now awash in contenders.
Henceforth, it doesn't matter what Serena, or Justine, or a healthy Maria or Venus could do if only they put their minds to it, or if their bodies were fighting trim. We may not even bother talking about it. The bottom line is that the WTA has moved on.
Of course, all that may not be enough to convince most fans to tune in this weekend for the Fed Cup matches, but you can bet that I'll be all over them. The WTA is making a believer out of me.