Fixing Women’s Tennis, One Pothole at a Time

by Lynn Berenbaum | October 10th, 2006, 11:10 pm

At its best, the women’s game can lay claim to a field of 8 players, each of whom are entirely capable of winning the Year-end Championships: Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, newly un-retired Martina Hingis, Nadia Petrova, and Elena Dementieva.

One would think that this kind of variation would lend itself to the possibility of many keen rivalries, which are essential if tennis is to grow in appeal and regain its former popularity.

Strangely, not so.

At the highest level, the women’s game is arguably in better shape, figuratively speaking, than the men’s game. The problem is that the leading exponents are invariably in poor shape, literally speaking. In fact the only thing resembling a rivalry that’s occurring at all is between the two top players, and at its base is an injury withdrawl during a Grand Slam final.

Ah, irony of ironies.

But never fear… Larry Scott, CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, decided to do something about the frightening casualty rate. You may recall that it was two years ago, after the ratings-killing all-Russian 2004 U.S. Open final between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva that the governing body announced that they were “reshaping the future of women’s tennis” in an initiative called “Roadmap 2010”.

It’s probably not surprising that the initiative’s name is strikingly similar to the Bush Administration’s plan to restore peace and security in the Middle East.

And we all know how that’s going.

Roadmap to Somewhere

Among the key elements of the Roadmap are a shorter playing season, with an extended off-season; mandatory tournaments, an easier-to-understand ranking system and strategic co-ordination with other tennis governing bodies.

The WTA’s spiffy new schedule will also include a two-month off-season, a reduction in the number of tournaments a player must play and a drastic drop in the number of top-level Tier I and Tier II events.

And in another bid to ensure better player participation, top players are no longer able to compete in any Tier IV tournaments. (Who can forget when Venus Williams famously agreed to compete in — then pulled from — the 2005 Nordic Light Open Tier IV in Stockholm, while the JP Morgan Chase Open was shedding top players due to injuries before the tournament even began?)

Fixing the Calendar

Beset by complaints over player injuries and a nearly year-round season, the WTA’s plan also includes a three-week break in the middle of the year, which likely would occur during the U.S. Open Series. The USTA obviously does not like that idea one iota.

Two of the main issues in the sport are on a collision course. One one hand, the move to bring order to the event-cluttered calendar through swings such as the U.S. Open Series, which provide consistent programming, marketing dollars and a buildup to the season’s last Grand Slam. On the other hand is a game which has evolved into such a physically taxing sport that player injury withdrawals are now the rule, thus requiring something like the Roadmap.

After the US Open, the WTA Tour and USTA argued over the women’s circuit’s plan to remake the summer calendar. The USTA claimed that the WTA’s plan focuses on Europe and Asia and will obviously hurt the US Open Series. Larry Scott apparently made no apologizes and noted that tennis is a global sport, then threw in that currently there are no top 10 female American players anyway.

Sharing the road is apparently an “optional” feature on the Roadmap.

More Co-Ordination

The problem for smaller events, like those in the US Open Series, is that the WTA wants to create a handful of mega-events in which all top players compete, getting that early-round competition going. To get the top players together at events and minimize the number they play, the WTA wants to place limits on how many lower-level stops they can compete in.

Although the plan does not reduce the number of North American events, the idea is to significantly differentiate the upper-tier events from the lower ones. Add to this that the WTA wants to create a handful of elite events, which could mean that top-10 players would not even be allowed to play at the Open Series events in Stanford and New Haven.

The WTA expects to make a final decision on its plan next spring and implement it by 2009, a year earlier than anticipated. Currently, the plan includes four major, mandatory combined events with the men, including the current ones in Indian Wells and Miami. The third would occur two weeks before the French Open somewhere in Europe, and the fourth would be in Asia in the fall.

For the record, the ATP is also planning a major schedule overhaul by 2009 in which it would form 14 elite events and increase prize money. Though the ATP’s plans have not sparked as much controversy, chairman Etienne de Villiers has said he would like to reformat the men’s tennis calendar in two years, in part by raising prize money levels.

In August the ATP and WTA tours announced that they are working on a plan that could bring a combined men’s and women’s tour event to Cincinnati. Cincinnati, which hosts one of the top-level men’s events in the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters, could be a site for the tournament by 2009.

However, according to the Indian Wells/Miami rule, the Cincinnati men’s stop, which has been shooting for a big combined event, would not be a top-level tournament and thus would not be guaranteed top female players if it formed a mixed event.

And while the WTA has pledged to create a funding program to assist events that are hurt by the new initiatives, the sell to tournament directors has been a tough one. The real key is to eliminate some of the problems that led to this year’s public relations disaster at the Rogers Cup in Montreal when 11 players withdrew, including three of the top four players on the WTA Tour — Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova — and former No. 1 player, Venus Williams.

The Problem Hits the Fans

As someone who was delightedly in attendance at last year’s Year-end Championship in Los Angeles, I can atest to the fact that the players limped in exhausted, and clearly under-performed. It’s a guarantee that the Madrid fans will be treated to the same excellent flavor of play.

Unfortunately this year’s champion may be crowned having less to do with the excellent standing of the field and more to do with who’s still able to stand before escaping for vacation.

The real problems with the Roadmap will undoubtedly boil down locally when a tournament that’s been attracting thousands of devotees year after year suddenly has to say, “We couldn’t get Mauresmo or a Williams sister, but can we interest you in… Ashley Harkleroad?”

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19 Comments for Fixing Women’s Tennis, One Pothole at a Time

Danny Hayes Says:

Would it be so bad to watch Ashley play. A lot of people have been interested in Ashley Harkleroad. She does draw people to some of the ITF events when she plays. Admittedly her inconsistency of playing great then playing poorly has hurt her overall appeal. She’s young enough still that she may still “show up” on the circuit in much the same way Davenport made a late appearance (at least as far as age is concerned.)

John Messenger Says:

In my opinion, the radical changes being considered will not solve the injury problem and may even create more. It seems to me that the people making the decisions have no idea what they are doing. Let’s look at some injuries. Kim Clijsters was injured in Montreal, she fell on her bad wrist. This was a fluke accident which could only have been prevented by not allowing Kim to play (not a good idea). Elena Dementieva who rarely gets injured cramped in a nearly 3 hour match. Cramps are normal in very long matches (e.g. Baghdatis playing Agassi in the US Open). The Australian Open had its fair share of injuries probably do to its sticky surface. The way to solve this problem is to do something about the rubbery surface. Making tournaments mandatory is part of the problem. Let the players pick where they want to play. Let them control their own season. There are plenty of players and plenty of tournaments. Let the tournament directors try to get the top players (if they choose). When I go to a tournament, I ask people who they came to see and who their favorite players are. I get different answers. You would be surprised by their favorites (e.g. Maria Kirilenko, Daniella Hantuchova, Vera Dushvina, Karolina Sprem, Elena Bovina, Elena Dementieva, Ana Ivanovic, etc.) Even Ashley Harkleroad is a draw for the NY Sportimes. It’s fun watching her play doubles with Hingis.

John Messenger Says:

I forgot to say something about the popularity of the sport. In my opinion, Tennis needs more exposure (i.e. TV coverage).

One example, you said you were delighted to see the Year End Championship in LA. You made a good choice because the matches that I wanted to see were not televised in the States. I think they were televised on Eurosport but I haven’t found a way to get that channel here. Where was the Tennis Channel? What about OLN (now Versus)? What about USA or ESPN?

Another example, The Kremlin Cup is a Tier 1 event. It’s this week. Where’s the early round TV coverage. It’s not being televised. The Tennis Channel will only do the Semifinals and Final, but I want, and I assume many other tennis fans would like, to see the early rounds. Safina and Kuznetsova have already been eliminated. It would have been nice to see those upsets.

Bottom line: If you want to promote Tennis, put more matches on TV. Don’t change the sport and think that that will do it.

By the way, the Tennis Channel is for the most part awful. If you only watched it, you probably wouldn’t know that the Kremlin Cup was being played.

Lynn Berenbaum Says:

Hey John,

I appreciate your comments, and you’re totally right, especially about TV coverage. Tennis is an international sport with global fans moving at a pace that the three major tennis super powers have not been able to keep up with, no less fathom it seems.

As the Roadmap, as well as the changes that the ATP are considering, are put into place, one of the more intersting things to watch will be how the players reorganize their schedules. Roger Federer is the perfect example of someone who has engineered a tidy, neatly planned calendar that almost guarantees an injury-free year while managing to keep far ahead of the crowd. Leave it to the Swiss, eh? :)

FTR, I hope you know that you can watch the Kremlin Cup live via web streaming. The quality is brilliant.



Corswandt Says:

“And in another bid to ensure better player participation, top players are no longer able to compete in any Tier IV tournaments.”

That rule is already effective – gold exempt players #1-10 aren’t allowed to enter TIVs. Check page 27 of the WTA rulebook.

“Add to this that the WTA wants to create a handful of elite events, which could mean that top-10 players would not even be allowed to play at the Open Series events in Stanford and New Haven.”

So what?

Those are only TIIs anyway, no better and no worse than Paris indoors or Antwerp. If they can’t bring in the cash to prevent them from being demoted, good riddance. They can always give a WC to Alex Stevenson.

The rest is just the usual Ugly American whining. “Women’s tennis sux because American players aren’t dominating it”, “them foreigners with them funny names are killing the game” (“ratings killing 2004 USO final”? So the game should be changed to ensure lowly Russians such as Kuznetsova or Dementieva never reach a major final again?).

The WTA tournament calendar has been US-centric for many years, but there is no longer any reason for it to remain so. So yes, the USTA is going to have to suck it up. You can’t complain that women’s tennis is no longer such a big draw in the US now that “Ree”, “Vee”, “Dav” and “JCap” aren’t at the top of the game (because you very well know that’s all those oblique references to the “lack of rivalries” mean – nostalgia for 1999-2003), and then still wish to keep many of the bigger tournaments taking place in a country that supposedly doesn’t care about women’s tennis anymore.

I still find your blog entertaining, and I hope you get back at posting fluff in it, because analysis surely isn’t your strong suit.

momofan Says:

Corswandt, I hope *you* stay away from WTA policy changes, because lemme tell you, making Tier II’s unplayable for Top 10 players is unacceptable. Period.

I live, like, half an hour away from Stanford and if you think I go to the Stanford tourney to see Alex Stevenson duke it out against Lisa Raymond, well, then, you’ve got another thing coming, buddy. The game is already suffering from a “sissy, elite” image, and making it so that you can only see your fave top 10 players at Grand Slams is *NOT* going to help the game. Period. End of statement.

And btw, no, I would not go to see Ashley Harkleroad. No momo at a tourney = no momofan, either.

John Messenger Says:

“And btw, no, I would not go to see Ashley Harkleroad. No momo at a tourney = no momofan, either.”

This is a great point. I have my favorites that I want to see that are different from just about everyone that I know. And their players are not necessarily my players. There are some overlaps but in my case not many.

All tastes are not the same, but that’s what makes the sport interesting.

John Messenger Says:

“Let the players pick where they want to play. Let them control their own season. There are plenty of players and plenty of tournaments. Let the tournament directors try to get the top players (if they choose).”

Horse Racing is like this. The owner and trainer choose how often a horse races and in what events. Some horses are lightly raced and others race a medium amount. If a horse gets injured, in many cases it’s a disaster.

In my opinion, Wimbledon is similar in nature to the Kentucky Derby. The Grand Slams are similar to the Triple Crown. Miami is similar to the Travers. A Tier 1 event is similar to a Grade 1. YEC is similar to the Breeder’s Cup.

John Messenger Says:

More on Horse Racing:

The season is all year long, just like tennis. The events overlap just like tennis.

There is no talk to shorten the season to cut down on injuries. There is no talk about cutting down on events. The rules are simple and straight forward. If an event wants the best horses, they just increase the purse. It’s simple and it works.

It’s up to the owners and trainers to keep their horses injury free.

John Messenger Says:

Assuming Tennis emulates Horse Racing, then:

1) The tennis season would be 12 months with no limit on the number of events. Great for the fans.

2) There would be no mandatory events for players. Great for the players. Injuries are then the total responsibility of the player. If an event has an injury prone surface, the players just avoid it. Either take that week off or pick another event. The event either loses money or fixes the problem.

3) Tournament directors would compete with one another to get top talent. This would be done via purse and perks, as it should be. Great for tennis. Great for the fans. Great for the players.

4) In order for the event to draw players, some of the money would need to come from TV coverage. The more TV coverage the more money. Great for tennis. Great for the fans. Great for the players.

Corswandt Says:

“Corswandt, I hope *you* stay away from WTA policy changes, because lemme tell you, making Tier II’s unplayable for Top 10 players is unacceptable. Period.”

Read the bit about the tournaments being demoted? That’s the issue here. The WTA’s plans for TIIs are for them to be either promoted into new super TIs which more top players will have to commit to playing, or demoted into TIIIs. That’s what I meant with “good riddance”.

Oploskoffie Says:

So we’re comparing female tennis players to hooved animals now? Richard Krajicek would be amused ;) Seriously, though…

Tennis is both economic and physical Darwinism; the strong survive. It’s also a stage that requires a lot of room for movement, so good on mister Scott for telling the USTA what to expect. And there’s probably still a very sizeable and appreciative crowd to be found in the United States, it’s how tournaments and players are marketed that will, at least in part, determine if they show up.

As far as “good riddance” goes, I’m not too sure. With top players being barred from lower tier tourneys and several ‘mid-level’ tournaments possibly disappearing, I can’t help but worry about limiting desperately needed fresh talent’s chances to make a real name for themselves. Doesn’t lower tier equal less money, less points and a generally lower standard of play? Competitive, yes. Good to watch? I still think so. But does it help players move forward? While more tier I tourneys could help add a few more elite players/names to the current selection, wouldn’t it pretty much be an optical illusion?

“Yeah, women’s tennis is really showing it too has depth and a variety of characters.” Oh, you mean we now have 15 players consistently reaching the business end of major tournaments as opposed to the 10 we had a few years ago? “Ehm, well, ehm…”

I’m all for cutting down on the amount of tournaments on the calendar to make the season more manageable for the players, but tennis needs it’s mid-level tourneys and it needs them spreak accross the globe and promoted properly. Both tours are trying, but certain things aren’t working or helping, like the way tennis is reported in the news. Too much emphasis on the negative. But I degress, we were talking about tournaments.

As much as I enjoyed the comparisons to horse racing, John Messenger’s four ways of helping the game seem to me like the perfect ways to add to the game’s current troubles.

1) Unlimited tournaments. Yeah, right, like there aren’t enough tournaments struggling to attract a proper field AND sponsorship. Maybe if tennis were as popular as illelag mp3’s you could convince people to show up in droves, but with things the way they are? I stand by what I said about wanting to keep mid-level tourneys, this is simply an invitation for overkill that would harm more than help.

2+3) No mandatory events for players? Dozens of tournament directors vying for a player’s participation? What would it do for tennis if only about ten tournaments could afford to attract the absolute top? Would extra ranking points be included in this sweet deal? I mean, there’s the possibilty of top players limiting themselves to playing the high profile and bank account friendly tournaments, then moving on to playing exhibitions and doing corporate outings to add to the piggy bank. What does that do for the fans? What does that do for the tournaments? They lose money? They’re forced to fix something that not everybody thinks is a problem? Do you replace one surface with another only to find that what pissed off player one now makes player two want to pour gas on it and add a flame? I’m not saying I have the answers here, but promoting elitism doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

4) Agreed, for the most part. Let’s first see if more (proper) tv coverage can actually be brought to our screens. Then, let’s make sure broadcasters don’t get full control of who plays at what time and on what court and for how long. I wouldn’t want to see tennis be downgraded to a tv-friendly format. It’s still a sport, it’s still a competition. We’ve come to love it as it is, so let’s give others the chance to do the same. Not everything has to be modernized.

I’ve rambled on long enough for now. If I’ve contradicted myself anywhere along the way, let me know ;) This was a case of ‘typing as I think’ :D :-X

Lynn Berenbaum Says:

Wow. We obviously need a message quote plugin round here. I’m putting that on X-Master’s to do list. :)

For the record, I feel strongly that I should clear something up: In no way was this post meant to be American-centric. Sorry if that was misconstrued. I was merely illustrating the point that there exists some problems with the WTA and the USTA, namely contract negligence regarding the USOS. I may write more about this in the next week in fact.

Also, while I think that we’re all hard-pressed to find comparisons in the sports world to the way that tennis is set up, John drew out some useful analogies for us all regarding horse racing. I’m sure there are a dozen or so comparisons that exist with NASCAR and/or the LPGA since there are so few such individualized sports that rely on a combination of tournament play and injury (yea, less injury for golfers, but you hopefully get the pernt! ;) ).

Thanks for everyone’s input. Now that the tour has put its objectives on the table, I’m curious, what do you guys think?

John Messenger Says:

“FTR, I hope you know that you can watch the Kremlin Cup live via web streaming. The quality is brilliant.”

Yes, I watched their livestreams last year and maybe the year before.

This year I taped one match (TTC) and watched it live via livestream. Then I went back and watched the tape. Livestream had one very nice advantage, no commercials. Also there was extra footage at the end of the match. Excellent.

John Messenger Says:

” … John drew out some useful analogies for us all regarding horse racing.”

My bottom line:

The point that I was trying to make, is that injuries should be the sole responsibility of the players, but they need a lot of freedom to make this happen.

At the same time, as a fan, I want the sport to continue with as many tournaments as possible. There are hundreds of players available to keep these going. I prefer to see matches in person. If they are close enough, I go.

And in order to promote (new and old) players and the sport, maximum TV coverage is a must. TV coverage should include the main ATP and WTA tournaments each week both early and late rounds. Selfish me, I even want to see the qualies.

John Messenger Says:

Lynn said “As someone who was delightedly in attendance at last year’s Year-end Championship …”

Lynn, are you going to Madrid?

If not, I wonder if the matches will be televised in the States?

My guess is that Eurosport will televise but I haven’t discovered how to get it on my TV.

Lynn said: “Unfortunately this year’s champion may be crowned having less to do with the excellent standing of the field and more to do with who’s still able to stand before escaping for vacation.”

You may be right on this: Mauresmo (shoulder), Henin (knee), Sharapova (foot), Petrova (chest), Clijsters (wrist). That’s five out of eight. The remaining three are: Dementieva, Kuznetsova and Hingis.

Lynn Berenbaum Says:

I’m looking into going to Madrid, but a lack of cheap fall airfares are holding me back for now. :(

The good news is that the Versus Network, formerly OLN, will be broadcasting them. The bad news is that the semis and the final will be on delay, so you have to go into tennis media blackout unless you want to hear the spoilers.

John Messenger Says:

Two more injuries: Kirilenko (hip) and Hantuchova (rib).

John Messenger Says:

A third injury at Linz:

Mary Pierce (left knee).

Top story: Rybakina Runs Away From Andreeva, Pegula Upset; Gauff v Kudermetova Thurs.