Serena Williams has more important things on her mind at present than tennis, what with a baby due this autumn. But her maternity break at least should offer a preview of up-and-comers who might rise in a post-Serena world.
“Right now, honestly, there is no heir apparent,” ESPN analyst/reporter Pam Shriver said Wednesday on a call with reporters to preview the French Open, which begins on Sunday and whose women’s field will be without several top players in addition to Williams.
“There’s nobody that is sort of that great talked-about teenager who seems to have it all. If there is somebody, they’re a little bit younger. Everybody is maturing so much later, nobody is sure of it.
“I for one don’t think we’re going to have a dominant player like Serena for a while. I think we’re going to have an era, when she’s retired, it’s going to be like a jump ball until that great next champion comes forward.”
Williams will turn 36 in September, but she is expected to return to the circuit in due time. But the end presumably is relatively near for her and, again, a succession plan does not appear to be in place.
“She may come back, but right now it’s time to rebuild, it’s time to get some stars,” ESPN analyst Chrissie Evert said. “We need some stars in the women’s game, where consistently they’re winning week in and week out. We want to turn on the TV, read about them. We want to hear their interviews. We want to be really enthusiastic and be fans of theirs.
“Right now, I mean, a lot of the top players don’t look like they’re comfortable with pressure and comfortable with success. I said this for two years: I can’t believe nobody stepped up to the plate and at least challenged Serena.”
Williams won the Australian Open — while pregnant — in January but the rules say someone has to win the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in her absence.
The women’s fields for Wimbledon and the Open should fill out a bit compared to the French, but as Shriver and Evert said, things are in flux among the women.
“Usually in women’s tennis, say since I started in the ’70s, most years it’s been fairly apparent who the next champion would be,” Shriver said. “I’ll just say when I started Chrissie was at the top, Martina [Navratilova] and Chrissie shared it, until [Steffi] Graf took the lead in the late ’80s, then [Monica] Seles. Then you had [Martina] Hingis a couple of years.”
Said Evert, “It’s definitely a transitional period right now in the women’s game. I think what this shows to me also, we talked a lot about the gap, nobody stepped up, but it shows to me also how great Serena Williams has been for the game, how she’s really carried the torch for so many years.
“People around the world tuned in to watch Serena Williams on TV. Serena Williams was worthy of front-page coverage. Her presence was enough that she carried the game for so long.”
Also missing from the French field will be Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and (probably) Petra Kvitova.
And, Evert said, “You have a [Angelique] Kerber who is not confident, a [Garbine] Muguruza who is not confident. You have all the makings of some great women’s tennis. I think further on down the summer, when we get Kvitova back, we get Azarenka back, we get Sharapova back, we get the players healthier, I think it will be a different picture.
“Right now at the French Open, there’s a big, big hole. Anybody can come through that hole. It’s a big opportunity for somebody to just grab it and take it.”
Shriver said any of 15 women could win. “I’ve never seen a time like this,” she said. “I thought I’d seen some draws in the last 10 years that were wide open on the women’s side, but I’ve never seen a situation like this.”
Said Evert, “The current No. 1 player [Kerber] just really hasn’t found her form. There’s five big players, four of the five aren’t in contention, and Kerber has yet to find her game. The whole field is open for anybody to slip through.”
Among the potential winners Shriver and Evert mentioned were Simona Halep, Kristina Mladenovic, Elina Svitolina, Madison Keys and even Serena Williams’ older sister, Venus.
“I would put my money on the field,” fellow analyst Brad Gilbert said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me 17 days from now somebody unseeded, somebody out of nowhere [won].
“I think Muguruza is really struggling. Kerber is really struggling. Keys is really struggling. People that you think would have an opportunity to take advantage, I don’t see at the moment.
“If you just told me out of nowhere, somebody like [Laura] Siegemund won in Stuttgart, I would not be shocked if you had an older player out of nowhere, a younger player out of nowhere.
“I feel like a lot of women are going to feel, like, opportunity, maybe never a better chance. I’ve noticed almost every week we have a different winner. It’s almost a matter of if the weather is warm or the weather is cool, who is going to get hot.”
Muguzura is ranked fifth in the world, but Evert has her doubts about how that will translate in Paris.
“I think it’s a very mental and emotional issue with Muguruza more than the game,” said Evert, a seven-time French Open winner. “She’s got the game. We’ve seen it. I think I’ve seen it when her coach has come out on the court. When you’re zeroing in on her with TV, you can see the self-doubt, you can see the insecurity, the frustration that she’s having in matches . . . I think she’s just really nervous and tense, not really comfortable with being at the top of the game, not comfortable with success, as Pam says, day in and day out.
“It’s almost like nobody stepped up. She would have been the one person who you thought had a great chance of stepping up after her big win. But I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s fear of winning, fear of carrying on that responsibility and having that target on your back, having all the attention on you. I don’t know what it is.
“Kerber is going through the same thing. Both of them I think are going through the same thing mentally and emotionally right now.”