The No. 1 ranking of Caroline Wozniacki is no longer the biggest blight on the quality of women's tennis. The inability of defending Grand Slam champions to advance past the second round of their next major is a bigger indictment of the state of the sport.
Defending US Open champion Sam Stosur was eliminated in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday, falling to Sorona Cristea, 7-6, 6-3. It's the second major in a row in which the previous Grand Slam champion failed to win a single match, and the fourth in a row in which the last champ didn't make it to the third round.
Petra Kvitova followed up her win at Wimbledon with a first-round loss at the US Open. Li Na was ousted in the second round of Wimbledon after winning the French, the same round that Kim Clijsters got to in Paris after winning the Australian Open. Only Li's loss, to Sabine Lisicki on the grass courts of the All England Club, was to a worthy opponent. The other three were upset by players ranked No. 45 or below.
What's the issue? It's not that any of the four champions were unworthy or fluky. They're all legitimate top-five players. It's not a surface issue. Clijsters was favored at the French, Kvitova figured to contend at the US Open and Stosur was playing on similar hard courts in Melbourne as the ones she won on in New York.
Pressure is the presumed culprit. With the exception of Clijsters, whose upset at the French we'll chalk up to a poor match at a tournament she hadn't played in five years, each of the other 2012 major winners were playing with added expectations in their follow-up. Li Na went from a famous athlete to a national hero in her native China after her Grand Slam victory. Kvitova began the year No. 32 in the world and had a meteoric rise to the top of the game. Stosur played her first major as a Grand Slam winner in her native Australia, a place where she's never performed well due to added pressure.
"You can't supress the emotions when it means so much to you," she said after the loss.
"It's hard. It's not through lack of trying or not wanting it. You can't pick the times when you do well."
The immediate burdens of becoming a champion have apparently been too much to bear for Li, Kvitova and Stosur. It's understandable on an emotional level, I suppose. On an athletic level, it's much less so. Throughout sports history, it's rarely been the pressure of winning that's afflicted athletes. The burdens of not winning have always been the issue. (Also, only in tennis can playing at home be considered a detriment.)
Nobody asked "where does Phil Mickelson go from here" when he finally broke through and won The Masters. It was assumed he'd gotten over the hump and would begin winning more majors in golf. When LeBron James inevitably wins a title one day, any failures the next year won't be blamed on the added pressure the ring brings him.
Sporting breakthroughs are supposed to alleviate the pressure, not add to it.