Sporting Life

Still a great show, even if the peerless Serena doesn't show

Serena Williams isn't coming to Singapore. Again. Not even it seems to sign an autograph. Sigh. Or shake a kid's hand. Shrug. Her shoulder hurts, possibly because tennis has been leaning on her for too long.

When the greatest women's player pulls out, a tournament seems less luminous. There is stuff Serena, even at 35, does with tennis balls that no one else can. She is power, timing, moodiness, style, precision and vulnerability wrapped in a stylish outfit and a scowl.

We might reassure ourselves and say, 'Well, we've seen enough of Serena' but that's like saying Michelangelo's David isn't worth a second or 14th look. Fans will mope a little over her no-show and then take their seats. They admire her, but they love the game of tennis.

Fans are devoted to personalities but they also cherish craft. Skill, after all, is hardly the preserve of a single player. Last year, after a few days of watching Agnieszka Radwanska, everyone had forgotten Serena. The Pole wasn't playing tennis, she was producing tutorials in point architecture. This year she is back and perhaps she'll play occasional points blindfolded like a circus knife thrower.

In the men's section these days, Roger Federer is rehabilitating, Rafael Nadal is being rewired and Novak Djokovic is rethinking his ambitions. Soon those old guys will be Scotch-taping themselves together at changeovers. Don't grimace, I say that very respectfully for they've run themselves ragged for our pleasure. But women's tennis, at the top, has a more youthful scent to it.


Agnieszka Radwanska will defend her WTA Finals crown and, in the absence of Serena Williams, the Pole and new world No. 1 Angelique Kerber of Germany will lead the field in Singapore. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Serena is a rugged and reliable heroine but a younger gang, powered by ambition, trying to claim territory, is becoming an alluring spectacle. Garbine Muguruza is 23, Madison Keys is 21 and Karolina Pliskova is 24. The average height of this trinity is 182cm and they all play at the same speed - full.

If Serena's forehand looks like it could pierce the side of an armoured vehicle, these women's are no less. Balls are struck, not always consistently, but without hesitation. Pliskova, for instance, hit 44 aces at the US Open and 508 for the year. Against her, under armour will not be enough.

But a sport needs to be filled with talent of different shades to satisfy our various aesthetic appetites. If Pliskova serves explosively, then Simona Halep, 25, returns smartly. According to SAP, the official cloud and analytics partner of the WTA Tour, she is second on tour in return points won. Romanian radar is evidently quite sophisticated.

Fans are devoted to personalities but they also cherish craft. Skill, after all, is hardly the preserve of a single player. Last year, after a few days of watching Agnieszka Radwanska, everyone had forgotten Serena. The Pole wasn't playing tennis, she was producing tutorials in point architecture.

Similarly, if Muguruza has speed of shot, then Halep counters by being fleet of foot. In Beijing recently I casually mentioned to her, "You're very fast," to which she sweetly and almost reflexively replied, "Ya".

There will be no Serena, but there will be sufficient style. Some of it provided by 27-year-old Dominika Cibulkova, a 161cm, smiling spirit on skates, who has said: "I have to compensate my height with something, so I just put a lot of energy in my tennis." From an undersized player that is a sizeable understatement.

To underline the running she does, this year Cibulkova played the most three-setters on tour at 27. She won 18. None of which her mother might have seen "live" for Cibulkova once informed us that she preferred replays. Nerves, please understand.

Of course, none of these players has the aura of Serena, nor her record. The American has 22 Grand Slam singles titles - the rest of the WTA Finals field together has three - and her combined head-to-head record against the seven qualifiers is 36-6. Lopsided comes to mind. And yet when she is missing, morale must lift even as opportunity must beckon. Only Radwanska, after all, among those appearing, has won this event before. History is calling.

Serena may still be The One but she is no longer No. 1, a position now held by a German whose forehand cross-court passes dip as ferociously as a Ronaldo free kick. Angelique Kerber is lurching slightly in the late season but she's the year's only double Slam winner who owns a serious appetite for a scrap. Greatness comes with baggage and just watching Kerber play while learning to wear a crown will be a juggling act worth the price of admission.

When Serena shows up, the rest of tennis tends to fade into her shadow. Now they should use the spotlight. Now the best of the women's world can show us their individuality, advertise their skill, display their grace, parade their desperation. There's talent in this town but the only way we won't miss Serena is if they don't let us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Still a great show, even if the peerless Serena doesn't show'. Print Edition | Subscribe