Keeler: Women's tennis is on the rise


^ Posted Jan. 24

Men's tennis has gained plenty of attention in the sports world over the last few years and rightfully so. But I think this year's Australian Open shows the women's game is starting to become just as strong.

ESPN, or as I like to call it the HYPE network, was in full hype overdrive earlier this week as they kept talking about a Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova final.
Oops, they did it again.

Of course, neither Williams nor Sharapova made it there, which to me is a sign of how strong the women's game is. Victoria Azarenka will play Li Na in tonight's final, and while it may not be the biggest marquee matchup, it should be a great final.

Both are former grand slam champions. Azarenka is the No. 1 player in the world and trying to show that she belongs there and defend her title. Either Azarenka or Na will finally get rid of the one-slam wonder label that they currently have.

On the men's side you have the "Big 4," as they're known -- Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Last year the women's game had their own version of that with a "Big 3" of Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova, but already this year it looks like things might be more wide open.

I think that's a very good thing.

While I like the top four in men's tennis, it makes things a little boring -- at least until the semifinals.

I like the fact that every major tournament, there's plenty of people that can win it. Can you imagine watching the NCAA men's tournament if you only had a couple teams that had a chance? The unknown and the possibility of upsets and a surprise winner is part of what makes it fun to watch.

I love good competition and I think there's going to be plenty of it on the women's tour this season. The top three are only separated by a total of 600 points in the rankings, and the No. 1 spot could flip-flop back and forth a lot this year.

Don't get me wrong -- Williams is clearly the best player in the world when she's healthy. She will move to No. 1 again if Azarenka loses tonight. But the reality is that she is 31 and has trouble staying healthy for an entire season, which opens the door for others.

Azarenka and Sharapova have been very consistent and are just behind Williams, and now it looks like Na may join them. She is coached by Carlos Rodriguez, seven-time slam champ Justine Henin's old coach, and the pair seem to be clicking these days. He's clearly helped her improve, and she seems to be playing the best tennis of her career. She's no longer having the ups and downs she used to have, and is now stronger mentally.

Even more important than the veterans who are doing well is the fact that there are many young players who are starting to emerge.

American Sloane Stephens is at the top of that list. She made it all the way to the semifinals, beating Williams along the way. Stephens, along with fellow American Madison Keys, should give American fans plenty to cheer about for many years to come.

They are among a strong teenage crop, which includes Britain's Laura Robson and 16-year old Croatian Donna Vekic.

These young guns are the future of the game and show that women's tennis will be just fine without the likes of the Williams sisters and Sharapova.

I think the top players still have plenty left in them, and that's why I think it's so interesting to watch the women's game right now. You have the old guard, who are trying to add to their resumes and pick up some of their final slams of their careers. Then you also have the young players who are trying to become the next great ones and are searching for that first major title.

It's a long season and I think it's going to be one to remember. Whether you like rooting for the young guns or the veterans, there should be a little something for everybody this year.

Contact assistant sports editor Tommy Keeler Jr. at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or


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