Is women's tennis struggling?

Russia's Maria Sharapova returns the ball against Serena Williams of the U.S. during her Stanford...

Russia's Maria Sharapova returns the ball against Serena Williams of the U.S. during her Stanford Classic tennis match in Stanford, California. (REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach)

DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:46 PM ET

It's hard to know who to believe when the state of women's tennis comes up in conversation.

On one hand, you've got many of the game's current stars saying, hey, everything is rosy. On the other, you've got the legendary John McEnroe, retired from his playing days for darn near 20 years but still attuned to what's going on in tennis, talking about how women's tennis is struggling.

Is it possible both are right?

It's easy to see why the game's stars, those at the top of the heap, have no quibbles with how their sport is playing out.

Seven of the top nine women on Forbes magazine's recently released list of top-earning female athletes are tennis players. With $25 million in earnings, the vast majority from endorsement deals, Maria Sharapova topped the list for the seventh straight year - she hauled in a shade less in 2010 - and world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki was second at $12.5 million. The Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Ana Ivanovic also made the top 10.

Money isn't everything, though. Is it? Isn't it supposed to be about winning, cementing your place in tennis history, not pitching another perfume or clothing line? Of course it should be. And, as we head into Canada's premier tennis event, the Rogers Cup, there hasn't been a better time for everyone to share in the glory.

Of the top 40 players entered in the Rogers Cup, 18 have won singles titles this year. Seven have won multiple titles. But, in the three Grand Slams of 2011, we have three different winners - Clijsters (Australian Open), Na (French Open) and Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon).

"We're at a very interesting time in tennis where the older generation that was dominating for so long (isn't any more)," Clijsters said. "It's nice to have both generations playing for a lot of the big titles now." But even taking into account Wozniacki's five ATP wins, the most by a player this year, there would seem to be an awful lot of parity.

"Personally, for me it¹s most interesting if I'm dominating," Venus Williams said with a laugh. "Everybody likes something different. Some people like to see other people win, others like to see a rivalry, some say there should be more winners. As long as there's good tennis being played, which I feel there is, that's what matters most.

"Women's tennis is really right where it should be. There are new faces, there are faces that we knew before that the fans love. It's just a great diversity, in my opinion. That's what's important for our sport, that there's someone for everyone to relate to, there's new stories. That's what will keep us going for a long time."

With all that parity, though, comes anonymity. There was a time even casual fans could name the top five women, maybe even more. Now, well, not so much.

Want proof? Name the third-ranked player in women¹s tennis. If you didn't guess Vera Zvonareva of Russia, you're wrong.

There certainly are some big names but the current WTA roster makes McEnroe nostalgic for the good ol' days when Martina Hingis ruled the court, when Jennifer Capriati was a household name, when Monica Seles was at her peak, when the Williams sisters were their dominant best.

"Hopefully they can get that buzz back they had back when the Williams sisters were younger, Hingis was out there, Capriati maybe to a degree, Seles at the end of her career. They seem like they had a lot of rivalries and personality. When Clijsters came back, that was a great story. They¹re hoping for the same with Serena and perhaps Venus to some degree.

"There's cause for a lot of concern. Players have retired, unretired, gone back into retirement. And so the continuity hasn't been there. There's a lot of concern about what's going on. I don't think there's anyone around the women's game who wouldn't tell you they've been struggling."

That's not the only issue, McEnroe says. The sheer volume of tournaments is leading players to cut back on their schedule to avoid injury, or conversely, play too much and get burned out.

"There's gotta be some tough questions asked to see where they go," McEnroe said. "In the meantime, it's going to be interesting to see what happens in the next year or two."

It's unlikely the 160,000-plus who shuffle through the turnstiles at Rexall Centre over the next week will have a strong opinion one way or the other about the future of the women's game, so long as they get to see good tennis during the Rogers Cup.

But maybe they should.

Serena and Venus won't be around much longer.

Clijsters has already retired once and has a family waiting for her - so she's on her way out.

Sharapova might realize she doesn't need tennis to make money, after all, and walk away.

Then what?

Or, more importantly, who?


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