The first in a series of articles which will statistically analyse women's tennis at Grand Slams.
Watching Victoria Azarenka play Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the recently concluded US Open, it was tough not to feel slightly cross with both players. Azarenka finally won the match 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 but, really, anyone could have won the contest.
Both failed to seize their chances like a shy man who misses countless opportunities to express his affection for the girl he loves. When I discussed the match with a friend, our discussion extended to a criticism of the women’s game. Such disapproval of the quality of women’s tennis has been expressed time and again over the past few years.
Many times, the discussion grows into a yearning for a return to the era of Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport. Commonly held notions suggest it was a time when women’s tennis flourished. The champions of the present era, some suggest, would fail to match those players.
After saturating my potential to criticise women’s tennis, I decided to split the past decade into two blocks of five and statistically analyse Grand Slam results in the chosen period.
My initial investigation focused on semi-finals since the other rounds were unlikely to produce “more insightful” results than the last four stage. This may be perceived as a whim but I had reasons to stick with my opinion. The rounds before a semi-final involve greater variables as there is a serious likelihood of rankings distorting the seedings at a Slam. In women’s tennis, outside the top four, players switch positions significantly over a short period of time. This phenomenon, in some way, precludes a reasonable assessment of their abilities.
For example, men’s current world number five Tomas Berdych has been in the top 10 since July 2010. Contrastingly, sixth-placed Sara Errani was ranked as low as 45 by WTA at the end of the 2011 season.
Back then, currently ninth-ranked Angelique Kerber was in the 32nd position. Hence, the semi-finals become the starting point of my inquiry.
Firstly, let’s get the simple results out of the way. From 2009-13, nobody played more semis (10) than Serena Williams. Azarenka and Maria Sharapova were joint-second with 7.
In fact, in the previous period of 2004-08, Sharapova matched Serena’s record but was closely followed in second by Justine Henin with 9 semi-final appearances. Serena featured in only five semis then but could have achieved more, if she had not missed seven championships due to injuries in the past decade.
28 different players played in the last four from 2009-13, two more than the 2004-08 figure of 26. Of the 28, 17 played their first career semi-final in this period, as compared to 16 in the previous five years.
While a high number of debutants is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to assess their ability to repeat the feat in the following Slams. 11 of the 16 from 2004-08 did not play a semi again in those years while, in the following period, 10 are yet to add to their solitary appearance at this stage.
Interestingly, 6 of the 16 who made their semi-final debut in the initial period did go on to play more semis in the following five years— Sharapova (7), Dinara Safina (3), Svetlana Kuznetsova (1), Zheng Jie (1), Jelena Jankovic (1) and Marion Bartoli (2).
With the exception of Flavia Pennetta—she is yet to be tested after reaching the last four at this year’s US Open— the nine single Slam semi appearance holders from 2009-13 have failed to replicate their achievement. Of the nine, Henin has retired and Jie, Yanina Wickmayer and Kirsten Flipkens did not play a quarterfinal again. (However, it must be noted that Flipkens reached a semi-final at Wimbledon only this year and, in her sole attempt afterwards, lost in the opening round at US Open.)
Moreover, Jankovic, Tsvetana Pironkova and Sloane Stephens (a semi-finalist at this year’s Australian Open) have added just a single last eight appearance after reaching their maiden semi-final. Positively, Sharapova, Kuznetsova and Bartoli went on to become Slam champions in the latter period. In fact, the two Russians have won a Slam title in both periods.
In the next piece, I will study the semi-final line-ups in greater detail with a focus on their relationship with seedings. The series continues.