— Last week, Taylor Swift’s manager might’ve called her on her heart-shaped phone, pausing before he asked whether she’d rather hear the good news or the bad news first.
The good news? "Speak Now," Swift’s latest collection of verse-chorus-verse sendoffs to her assorted former boyfriends, was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for the sixth straight week.
The bad? By selling only 52,000 copies, it became the worst-selling chart topper ever.
Maybe Swift could scrape the dried teardrops off her guitar and write something twangy about another woman with an underwhelming top ranking. The current Women’s Tennis Association No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki, is the third straight player who made her first appearance at No. 1 without winning a single Grand Slam.
She’s also the No. 1 seed at the Australian Open, a tournament where more ink and keystrokes have been devoted to what’s missing from the women’s side of Melbourne Park: defending champion Serena Williams, any Grand Slam wins for Wozniacki or No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, and any hint of a sustained — or sustainable — rivalry between the highest-ranked players. Meanwhile, the top-seeded names in the men’s draw are, for the most part, more recognizable than the embroidered alligators on Andy Roddick’s outfits.
Five-time Aussie winner Serena Williams hasn’t played since last summer after sustaining the most mysterious lower limb injury since Dr. House lost half his right thigh. Although Williams has rarely spoken about her off-the-court, in-the-club mishap, she did tell USA Today that she suffered a lacerated toe tendon when “someone may have dropped something” in a German restaurant. Despite having surgery in July to repair her foot, she’d already withdrawn from the Australian Open by November.
That leaves Wozniacki with a pair of No. 1s, despite fewer Grand Slams than a Denny's menu, despite losing in two exhibitions, an opening-round loss in the Medibank International Sydney Tennis Tournament, and — wait for it … wait for it — another non-winning effort in the finals of the WTA Tour Championships.
Two of Wozniacki’s early 2-11 defeats came from the Babolat racket of No. 3 Kim Clijsters. Given Wozniacki’s cumulative 16-21 record against the rest of the WTA top 10, that’s less surprising than her 15 weeks at the top. The WTA rankings are an entirely computer-generated system that are, according to the tour's website, "based on a 52-week cumulative system. A player’s ranking is determined by her results at a maximum of 16 tournaments." That means the computers reward players for their consistency. They don't have to consistently win, just consistently show up.
A willingness to double-stuff her tournament schedule is partially how Wozniacki managed to outrank Serena, Clijsters, Venus Williams and their combined 23 Grand Slam wins. The Wizard of Woz (yeah, she gets a nickname because my spellcheck is currently on fire) played in 22 tournaments last year. She won six, in places such as Copenhagen and Montreal, rather than at Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows. By contrast, Serena only backhanded her way through six total events but won the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Quantity matters and, although some tournaments are weighted higher than others, quality doesn’t always make it to the finals. Kind of like Wozniacki.
I’m not just picking on her, though, because the women’s rankings have frequently been more snarled than a pair of double-knotted shoelaces. Since Serena’s first 57-week stint at No. 1, which began in July 2002, the top spot has changed hands 28 times among 10 different women. During the same period of time, the men's No. 1 was swapped 10 times among six men, although Federer and Nadal have passed it back and forth almost seven years.
That kind of inconsistency on the WTA side — along with Serena’s severed tendons — made the 2010 season one of the least exciting and least watched. That’s what happens when the five Grand Slamming-est players of the past decade — Serena, Venus, Clijsters, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova — don’t stare at each other across the net often enough.
Injuries plagued Henin and both Williams sisters. Vera Zvonareva faced (and lost to) Serena and Henin in the Wimbledon and French Open finals, respectively, but they weren’t big enough names — or big enough rivalries — to get viewers to spend their weekends parked in front of cable coverage of the tournaments.
According to the Sports Business Journal, the 2010 women’s finals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open all saw their lowest ratings of the past decade. The men’s side saw similarly underwhelming numbers, especially compared to the trios of Federer/Roddick and Federer/Nadal fights from 2004-2009.
For fans of non-marking soles and sidespin who grew up watching semi-annual showdowns between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, a more-weathered Martina vs. Steffi Graf and Graf vs. Monica Seles, last year’s Francesca Schiavone/Samantha Stosur French Open final just didn’t get it done.
Those kinds of ongoing yearly final-round faceoffs are good for building rivalries and, by extension, sustaining interest in the sport. But given the age, injury history and occasional personal issues of some of the sure-to-be-legends, you wonder how many more chances they’ll have to co-star in Sunday afternoon showdowns.
And, worse, what if they can’t? What if they don’t? What if we’re in for another stack of semi-anonymous, semifinal losing No. 1s?
That’s almost sad enough for a country song. Somebody call Taylor Swift.