As the 2008 tennis season draws to a close, each of the tours is commencing on its year-end championship. In theory, these events are intended to conclude the year in a playoff-style manner, conclusively settle matters related to the rankings, and perhaps even offer a hint of what's on the horizon in the year to come.
Without a doubt, these events have often staged superb matches. The players are fully aware of one another's games, guaranteed six-figure checks regardless of outcome, able to compete in a round-robin format and contend in events devoid of dangerous floaters. It all adds up to a perfect setting for the first-rate ball-striking and movement that makes contemporary tennis such a remarkable showcase of athleticism.
But the reality has differed. As high-quality as the tennis can be, it's not always clear what's truly at stake in these year-end events. Stealing from other sports, the question is this simple: All-Star Game or Super Bowl?
A variation of the Super Bowl theme is in place at the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's event this week in Doha, Qatar. Oddly enough, the tour's top two ranked players, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina, failed to win a Grand Slam event in 2008. The other six entrants -- most notably third-ranked Serena Williams, who won the U.S. Open in September and briefly regained the No. 1 ranking -- could all make a big statement with a win at this $4.4 million tournament. "It's never been a more wide-open year," said Tennis Channel analyst Corina Morariu. No matter who wins the tournament, though, Jankovic has earned enough points by dint of her year-round consistency that she's guaranteed the top ranking.
This is far from the first time the woman who finishes the year ranked No. 1 will not have earned a Grand Slam title. In fact, over the past decade it's happened four times. In large part, alas, this is the result of the Williams sisters' scheduling choices. In 2000 and '01, for example, Venus won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but only finished the year ranked No. 3. This year, Venus and Serena each played 13 tournaments, significantly fewer than any of the eight players in Doha. Never in women's tennis history has a Wimbledon champion been as low-ranked as Venus at No. 8 in the world. She won just one other title this year. It's a far cry from the days of Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport, who competed week in and week out.
And so it's best to view this year's Sony Ericsson Championships more as an indicator toward the future. With Serena Williams the only player in the field to have won the title, will a first-time titlist give herself a jump-start into 2009? Surely such a win would aid the likes of Jankovic, Safina and veteran Elena Dementieva, each of whom has yet to win her first Slam singles title. Can Ana Ivanovic, hindered by injuries and bad losses in six events following her French Open win, thoroughly re-establish herself as one of the very best? Or will one of the Williams sisters take the title and, along with her Slam win, make a case as the best player of the year regardless of computer ranking? It's a confusing plotline.
Meanwhile, this year's men's event in Shanghai will do little to alter the ATP hierarchy of 2008. Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from Shanghai does nothing to lower his ranking. Roger Federer's U.S. Open win and appearance in two Slam finals confirm his status as No. 2. And Novak Djokovic's victories at the Australian Open and a pair of Tennis Masters events at Indian Wells and Rome have consolidated his position at No. 3.
So perhaps the most engaging aspect of Shanghai will be the opportunity to witness a trio of lively newcomers -- Argentine Juan Martin del Potro and Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon. All three are exciting, aggressive shot-makers, who will likely be swinging from the hip in Shanghai. And why shouldn't they? They've nothing to lose, will be able to play no fewer than three matches, including at least one versus a Grand Slam winner, so why not enjoy the week and let it fly? Think of these three as the equivalent of NBA rookies strutting their stuff at the Slam Dunk Contest. Then again, All-Star games have their moments.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.