Interesting stuff from the IHT roundtable discussion on women's tennis (for the record, I find the L'Equipe guy tremendously hypocritical and annoying):
CHRISTOPHER CLAREY, IHT: The draw is done in Melbourne. The season begins in earnest on Monday with the Australian Open, but I'd like to stick to the big picture here and look at the women's season to come. Let's start with Jelena Jankovic, number one in the rankings but hardly a classic number one without a Grand Slam singles title to her credit. Can she make the leap? Or not?
JON WERTHEIM, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: I think JJ has proven herself to some extent. Be nice if she had a Slam to her name, but she's won (and played) enough to be more than the accidental number one. With the women's field is disarray -- three of the top four have never won a Slam -- I think she ought to break through in 2009.
CLAREY: I don't agree on proving herself. No Slam. No true credibility.
TOM TEBBUTT, THE GLOBE AND MAIL: Now we hear Jelena has an Achilles problem. Talked to coach Sven Groeneveld last week and he said something about Ana Ivanovic that applies to Jankovic too: He said that the other players are waiting for them now and it will be difficult. Tough to see Jankovic already having injury trouble after that vaunted off-season training.
CLAREY: I saw her in the players' restaurant in Melbourne, and she was laughing it up with some friends, so she didn't look too worried. Clearly, she's in better shape her than she was last year, when she seemed to be taped up in a full body wrap.
LINDA PEARCE, THE AGE: Jelena should win a Slam this year and maybe the Australian Open. She's so steady that her time will come.
JUAN JOSÉ MATEO, EL PAIS: Just to spice things up, I'll throw this out there. Sometimes I think that today's women's game is a sport in which the Williams sisters win when, where and how they want. That speaks for the quality of the game, the quantity of good players and the depth of the circuit.
CLAREY: I think Serena really wanted to win the French Open last year and bombed out against Katarina Srebotnik, so it' s not quite on demand.
TEBBUTT: I think it's the same old story - if Serena is healthy, she's the best with Venus close behind. But who would bet on their track record of staying healthy - or on any of the women? Do you think the famous Roadmap cutting one week from the schedule and one tournament from the rankings calculation - will greatly help that?
WERTHEIM: If the ranking were configured differently the Williams sisters would be 1-2. A decade ago, who would have predicted they'd still be driving the train for all intents?
MATEO: Someone please tell Justine Henin to come back!
PHILIPPE BOUIN, L'EQUIPE: Women's tennis needs one or two inspiring figures who would show all these young Blondovas that sport is not only a good way to make big money. The problem is that the Williamses did play in the first stage of their careers for that precise reason: make millions. Now they have a chance to become inspiring because now they play for glory. But do they realize it?
WERTHEIM: Blondovas? Quick, hit the "trademark" key, Philippe
BOUIN: I want to see real women tennis players and not shopping princesses.
MATEO: Most of the players do play without imagination, looking to force errors, just putting the opponent under pressure and throwing tons of force in the ball, but no angles, no magic, no fun. That's a generalization, of course. There are interesting players out there, but not that many.
PEARCE: Philippe, who is most real to you?
BOUIN: Believe it or not, the most real for me was......Maria Sharapova. Because she would die for a win and because she is a gracious loser.
CLAREY: I've got to say that I think Jankovic is great fun to watch (and not in the shopping mall). She's a great mover. Her game translates well to an audience (if only she can keep cutting back on the medical time outs) and her technique is spectacular if not entirely sound.
BOUIN: Yes Jankovic is a good tennis player, but not yet a champion.
CLAREY: Nope she's not, and Sharapova is a champion but not lately a tennis player. How much does the game need her and her shriek?
WERTHEIM: Desperately. And Sharapova looked like a dominating champion at this point last year....
CLAREY: I vote for desperately, too. But chronic shoulder injuries too often spell doom for tennis stars.
PEARCE: Sharapova is really important. But the shriek, ugh.
CLAREY: What of Dinara Safina, no longer just Marat's little sister. She improved a ton last season: finished at number three. Can she continue to rise? Or does the mechanical quality of her game and her combustibility work too much against her?
TEBBUTT: Anyone who saw the Hopman Cup final will be convinced that Dinara and Marat are ready for the little white house on the hill. Mentally crushing losses for both - but Dinara did rally from 1-5 down in the fifth to salvage a bit of confidence after he forehand totally collapsed - but I still see her with an Australian Open chance.
CLAREY: Reaching the final in Sydney can't hurt her confidence coming in.
TEBBUTT: Sometimes in tennis, payback comes long after the fact. Dinara should have won the Olympic gold if she hadn't had to play 3:30 a.m. the day before. Maybe the Gods will smile on her either in Melbourne or Paris?
CLAREY: Jon, your second point about their sparse schedules makes sense to a degree, but the general public only tunes into the big tournaments, and the Williamses are still there playing those and wining them, so why can't they carry their sport? It's not like they aren't good copy, particularly Serena.
MATEO: I think they can carry their sport, but the WTA should think about why the same two women who were doing so in 2000 are still carrying the sport in 2009.
BOUIN: And carrying also means caring? Do they really care for their sport?
CLAREY: Juan, I think you can see that two ways. Longevity, in theory, should promote interest. You have established champions trying to handle each new wave of players. It's like Federer with his chase pack. I guess I'm still mystified that there's not more of a connect with the sisters around the globe. I personally am no big fan of their style of play. Too hit or miss for me: more impressive than attractive. But I thought Serena's level of tennis in the US Open final last year against Jankovic was the best I've seen her play. And as for Philippe's point about caring about their sport, Venus, for one, has been very involved in the internal poltiics, and not just Wimbledon prize money
PEARCE: Billie Jean King sees Venus as the current Billie Jean King, relatively, anyway.
WERTHEIM: Agree, there are ways to care other than playing 30 weeks a year. But we owe it to them to acknowledge that their scheduling method - filled as it was with maddening withdrawals - has proven superior to the Kim/Justine/Jankovic school...
MATEO: At the same time, that scheduling reflects a lack of hunger. Some would say that players with their talent should try to win as many tournaments as possible. They don't seem to agree with the idea.
TEBBUTT: I truly believe, since the knee surgery in 2003, Serena is touch and go - I'd be curious to know how many times pain killers have saved her at events.
CLAREY: I think they both realized early that neither their minds nor their bodies could handle the grind...but I do see both of them, as Tom says, coming to love the game that was imposed on them as kids. It could be a bit like the Andre Agassi dynamic. Ball above the cradle and eventually you come to love the sport despite your parent's obsession and learn to savor the gift
WERTHEIM: They're interested (intensely) eight weeks a year. It's Montreal (sorry tom) and Berlin they can do without....
CLAREY: The Berlin tournament just got canceled, so they aren't the only ones who could do without it.
MATEO: I think that both sisters are great champions with unique personalities, but I still think that Justine or Amelie Mauresmo play a different, more varied game, and I personally enjoy that one more.
CLAREY: I'm not trying to be their apologist here, but I remain surprised they don't generate more buzz and that women's tennis is viewed as being in a bit of a vacuum with them both still around and still big factors.
BOUIN: The way the Williams sisters seem to ignore all the other players, all the other people involve in tennis, the whole sport in fact, does not give a good impression of anything else other than themselves. They never speak about tennis. They never accept to share their view on the sport: on the technique, on the tactics. They do not seem to care about tennis. So why should we?
TEBBUTT: I think Venus and Serena see the end now - and care more than ever. How that translates will be interesting to follow.
BOUIN: And what of Ana Ivanovic?
WERTHEIM: Rather have a weapon than fire on today's WTA. And yes, what of Ivanovic? she's so pleasant you hate to sling. But what a disappointment post-Roland Garros.....
PEARCE: Ivanovic is still playing dreadfully. Right now, it's hard to see her reaching the final again in Australia. She's unwell, but she said that in Doha. Where she lost, too. Not a good pattern.
TEBBUTT: The thumb was a huge problem post-Wimbledon - and she maybe wasn't right vs. Amelie Mauresmo in Brisbane - let's cut her some slack.
BOUIN: Speaking of having only one game, poor Ana seems to be the prototype.
PEARCE: Mauresmo completely outwitted her. Ana couldn't handle the variety. Needs to be more patient.
CLAREY: Which is surprising because she has a lot of variety in her shot-making abilities. Volleys quite well, can do several things with the backhand and can vary the serve. But she still tends to over hit under pressure and if her movement is not quite right, it can go awry badly. She's also not a truly gifted mover naturally. I still like Ivanovic's chances of winning another French, even this year. Don't see her as a one-Slam wonder.
BOUIN: I do not like the idea of her winning again, not because I do not like her, but because I hope to see a more complete tennis be successful.
CLAREY: I think she has the more complete tennis in her but lacks the lucidity and confidence to execute it. The biggest disappointment to me, other than Sharapova's injury, is Svetlana Kuznetsova.
WERTHEIM: Right on. All the athleticism in the world and no self confidence whatsoever. She is the embodiment of how mental a sport this is.
TEBBUTT: Kuznetsova messed up more draws last year - so many were out of balance with her on that side
MATEO: Svetlana is a great mover, has a complete game, but lacks concentration in the important moments. She is messy when the time comes to decide to take or not to take risks.
CLAREY: Do we think her moving back to Moscow full time -- whatever that means? -- will help Kuznetsova?
BOUIN: To what? To party better or to play better?
TEBBUTT: Saw her practicing last week with Olga Morozova as coach - not sure any one can help that head.
MATEO: Sveta will miss Emilio Sanchez's help as a coach. That's a downer. He revealed himself as a master tactician in the Davis Cup.
CLAREY: So, to finish up, anybody else we should toast on the women's side?
CLAREY: Good point and great start to the year. Number four in the world, but something tells me last year was a high-water mark. Now watch her end up number one after the Australian Open, which could be the case for a lot of women.