It's a resolution we make every year: Find what's "new" in the WTA. Who will be the next dominant champion? This season's breakthrough talent and the player we didn't see coming? We ask these questions not just because we're sports fans, who by nature must dismiss anything even marginally status quo as tired, stale or uncool, but in this specific case, because what's "old" has ruled women's tennis for so long. Ever since the Williams sisters took an a la carte approach to the tour calendar, we've wondered when they'll lose their grip on the game. But every year, their impact endures, even last year, when Serena failed to win a Slam but was still the story of the summer. And don't forget, last year's Australian Open winner was Kim Clijsters, the veteran on her second tour of tour life.
And yet, I feel compelled to beat the drum one more time. Not because I desire some new blood or despise the old guard, but because of three red flags -- Clijsters' motivation, Venus Williams' health and Serena Williams' words. On their own, these concerns are nothing new. Clijsters has long had a love-hate relationship with the game, and although she appears solely focused on the Olympics this year, look for the Belgian to play very well -- when she decides to play. Venus' situation is obviously more troubling. Injuries and Sjogren's syndrome limited her to just four tournaments in 2011. As for Serena, who told reporters in Brisbane that she "never liked sports" and "I don't like tennis today," when has she not spoken from the heart? (The tennis gods took great offense to the comments, as Serena was forced to retire with an ankle injury after her next match, which she won.)
But taken together, it does seem like we may be arriving at a tipping point. All three of these women were out for extended periods of time last year, and fresh faces emerged, none more so than Petra Kvitova, who backed up her Wimbledon win with another big title at the WTA Championships. Two other players earned their first Grand Slam singles trophy, Li Na at the French Open, and Sam Stosur, who subdued Serena in straights in the U.S. Open final. It was a plot twist thrown into an all-too-familiar tale: No one gave Stosur a chance that day, and rightfully so, based on both players' histories.
The shocking result was our lasting memory of Serena during the offseason. She didn't play any tournaments in the fall. In her first event back, she suffered both physical and mental setbacks. Serena usually saves her controversial remarks for the court, but they were surprising to hear. She'll be hounded about them all year. It wasn't exactly the start to 2012 she was looking for -- I'd put a few dollars on that.
But as she's done so many times in the past, Serena can shut us all up with another major title, and she'll hopefully have that chance in Melbourne. Clijsters will be there and maybe even Venus. But so will Kvitova, Stosur, Li and two other hungry youngsters, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. No matter who wins it all, we know one thing: Serena will find a way to be the story -- and probably will until she calls it quits, like it or not.