Fixing Women’s Tennis, One Pothole at a Time
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.
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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