Top women seeds fall in stronger fields

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For evidence of the growing depth in women’s tennis, you could have done far worse than take a glance around the first-class lounge at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport this week.

The Australian Open’s
second week will begin on Monday without either of the Williams sisters; Mary Pierce, runner-up in last year’s French and US Opens; or ninth seed Elena Dementieva. All four were beaten by opponents ranked lower than them and were, therefore, heading for the airport when, in year’s gone by, they would have been heading for the final rounds.

Serena Williams, the defending champion and a former world number one, on Friday became the latest for the check-in queue when she was beaten 6-1 7-6 by Daniela Hantuchova in the third round. Her sister Venus, the reigning Wimbledon champion, had been dispatched (by world number 95 Tsvetana Pironkova) on Monday, as had Dementieva.

Pierce did not last beyond Wednesday and of those who survived, nine of the top 16 seeds dropped a set en route to the third round – the first time in Australian Open history that the marquee names in the women’s draw had been so severely tested.

There are still the routs – Maria Sharapova, for example, took just an hour and eight minutes to beat Jelena Kostanic 6-0 6-1 yesterday – but they are happening less often. The sport so often derided as being a dull procession until the quarter-finals is now in danger of being compelling viewing from the moment the first ball is struck.

“The depth on the women’s tour is much deeper now than it used to be,” says Tracy Austin, the former US Open champion and now a television pundit. “Ten years ago you simply would not have had the likes of Dementieva and Williams going out in the first round of a grand slam.”

“The Williamses used to defy tennis logic in that they’d be away [from tennis] for a while, then they’d come back and it was like they’d never been away. They can’t get away with doing that anymore.”

Few players are better placed to judge the increased levels of competitiveness than Martina Hingis, who retired in 2002 but has now returned to the tour. The former world number one has reached the third round here, but she is in no doubt that the sport has improved, both physically and technically, during her hiatus.

“I think the technology in general has evolved,” she says. “You can hit it hard, but sometimes you have to pace it, too, and control it. It’s different to be hitting hard but also putting it where you want it, in the right spot,” said Hingis after her first match back.

The influx of money from tour sponsor Sony Ericsson has, arguably, buoyed the game as a whole, but even before the mobile communications company agreed what was trumpeted as the biggest deal in the history of women’s sport, the tour was restructuring itself to ensure that quality ran all the way down.

“One of the things that helps massively is having more tournaments,” says Sam Smith, former British number one and now a coach and TV pundit. “Ten years ago you could either play a massive tournament or a tiny event worth $25,000 and there wasn’t anything in between. That didn’t help anyone’s development.

“Now you have five tiers of tournaments, so players that before wouldn’t have won titles can go and win a tier three or four event and get so much confidence from winning a tour title and also from getting three or more matches per week rather than simply meeting a top player and getting walloped.

“I think it’s made it harder to dominate completely. Now players ranked 50 or 60 can go to Istanbul or somewhere and win, then when they play top players they are better equipped to cope. So much on the women’s tour is about locker room psychology and there is a hierarchy, and nowadays most players are not so much in awe as they used to be. That makes a huge, huge difference.”

That difference may be the reason why Serena Williams is probably now cruising at 37,000ft rather than cruising towards another Australian Open title.

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