WTA tour a tough sell

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

The biggest news at this week's Rogers Cup in Toronto won't be which one of the Women's Tennis Association stars hits the final winning shot.

The big news is that they're actually showing up to hit their first shot.

"We have all of the top 10 players. Amelie Mauresmo is already here and Maria Sharapova is doing the draw," Michael Downey, president and CEO of Tennis Canada, said.

Even the Williams sisters haven't been able to sustain so much as a paper cut to excuse themselves. Of course, it's still early and accidents do happen -- particularly when it comes to the Canadian women's national championship tournament.

Historically, this event is the Rodney Dangerfield of the tour calendar. It couldn't buy respect.

For years, ticket buyers have been promised steak and served hamburger.

Venus Williams is hitting a lifetime 0-fer in Canada. She has played two matches here, lost both, and was a no-show last year.

In 2007, Sharapova, Mauresmo and Venus did not arrive as advertised. The year before 11 players lost their invitations, and in 2004 only 10 of the top 20 players showed with Serena coming up with a "big owiee."

Promises. Promises. It has, of course, been said that it is a woman's prerogative to change her mind. But this was getting silly. No one has failed to deliver on a promise with consistency like this since the last time Richard Peddie put one hand over his ever-Leafs-lovin' heart and the other on the Stanley Cup.

The integrity of the game was being called into question.

Which brings us to this week and hopefully a Rogers Cup with a facelift; the return of an old friend with renewed energy.

Rules were changed. The recession hit. Prize money for the Rogers Cup in Toronto was bumped by more than $600,000.

"Prize money is up to $2 million, that got us better commitment from the players," Downey said. "The other reason, frankly, is we're in a recession and sponsorship money for players isn't as strong as it has been. So prize money is much more important for players than it has been."

The women's tour reduced the number of events this year, hoping that might reduce tournament defections.

"So far, so good," Toronto tournament director Karl Hale said. "Right now we're looking at the best player field we've had in 10 years. It seems to be working."

The women's tour could use some good news.

While the men's tour has star power anchored by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal rivalry, the women's tour has the Williams sisters and a lot of people whose names look like something your kid put together with his alphabet soup. That might be unfair, bordering on xenophobic, but lovely people that they might be, Dementieva vs. Kusnetsova won't be a big sell anywhere from Topeka to Timmins and L.A. in between.

"We're a global tour. More diversity and regional stars allows us to have a wider footprint in a global economy," said WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster, mounting a defence of her organization. But face it. Nine out of 10 people surveyed on Yonge St. wouldn't know Pavluyuchenkova from Pavlov.

"What you're seeing in tennis parallels the world economy. The business is spread out." Allaster said. "We have the luxury of having a solid base in North America. We've just opened an office in Beijing. It'll be territories like China, India and Brazil that become the emerging markets and markets for growth for the long-term sustainability of women's tennis."

All of which is nice. But to someone sitting in a Boston brownstone, a New York penthouse or up here in the English colonies, it just doesn't have the same impact as Connors-McEnroe or Evert-Navratilova. For every Margaret Court or Billie Jean King there are now a dozen remarkably talented but virtually clone-like East Europeans.

Tennis' demographics have completely changed since Evert's posters hung from bedroom walls all across America. It was dominated by Americans, the British and Australians. Today, only three of the top-50 women's players call those countries home -- the Williams sisters and Samantha Stosur of Australia.

"Any country relishes and is proud of their own. Who isn't proud of Canadian athletes excelling abroad?" said Allaster, Canada's top female international sports executive and former tournament director of the Rogers Cup.

"As a Canadian you have a natural, patriotic tie to one of your own. That isn't to say we don't embrace athletes from other countries."

Speaking of embracing -- the women's tour is sexier than it's male counterpart. So that's a plus, right?

Well. Maybe. But even here, everyone is not in agreement. The game has come a long way since Britain was scandalized when short-skirted Gertrude Moran flashed her underpants at Wimbledon. Navratilova and Evert embarked upon the game's greatest rivalry, but Martina also revolutionized it as much with her openly lesbian lifestyle as with her serve and volley. And, Evert was to tennis what Doris Day was to Hollywood -- sassy, available but not quite attainable. Sharapova, too. Sex appeal sells.

Not everyone is comfortable with the sales approach. Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion, caused a stir when he went on BBC radio and noted the only reason anyone watches women's tennis any more is to ogle the participants.

"They want to look good, they pay attention to their looks ... That's what they sell," Stich said.

Allaster demures. "We as a tour market the athletes as the best tennis players in the world. That's where it starts and ends," she said. "They are independent contractors and can determine what's best for their brand and their business. Some of them enjoy the red carpet ... the entertainment business."

That would be Serena. "Sex sells," she said earlier this year. Unlike Stich, it doesn't bother her.

Sharapova made the Forbes Magazine top 25 list of the world's highest-paid athletes in 2007 and has been used to sell everything from Land Rovers to bikinis. Anna Kournikova never won a WTA tournament but used her looks to become the world's highest-paid female athlete.

"That exposure can't help but give the sport a higher profile," Hale said.

"It gets us in entertainment magazines or on TV and people who aren't otherwise interested in tennis might get curious."

Allaster -- not that the tour would ever suggest any of its players pretty themselves up for the camera -- allows that if a little cheescake draws non-traditional fans to the game it wouldn't be unwelcome.

"First they're athletes. They're stars because they're great tennis players," Allaster said. "But all of us understand that we're in the entertainment business. If you look at the growth of the Rogers Cup ... I'd wager that 40 to 50% (of ticket holders) do not play tennis. That's the space we're in. There's an off-court lifestyle that our players are taking advantage of just like musicians or other actors or athletes."

Still, for all of Sharapova's magazine covers and all of the Williams' sisters appearances on Entertainment Tonight, the women's tour suffers from an identity crisis.

When one of the biggest stories out of Wimbledon is about the decibel level of Portuguese teenager Michelle Larcher De Brito's grunt it isn't a good thing. Said De Brito at the time: "I could (stop grunting), but, you know, it won't feel natural. I'm a woman; we're not designed to shut up."

Great quote. But also perhaps a hint that women's tennis is in dire need of a Federer/Nadal rivalry. Even Allaster, who has a tendency to come off sounding like she's regurgitating a public relations script, acknowledged during a telephone interview that the men's tour has something special going.

"Nobody can deny how special the Federer/Nadal rivalry is, or what it was between Chrissy and Martina. Those were great moments."

One of the players in Toronto will be Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., who has ranked as high as 21st in the world. Last year Wozniak became the first Canadian in 20 years to win a tour title, defeating Serena en route to capturing the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford.

For the first time in a generation, fans have more to cheer for than just a token Canadian. Finally, we have someone who is in with a chance. But laudable as this might be, Wozniak is not yet a big draw at the ticket window.

Rivalries are. They have intrigued the world since Cain beat Abel and McEnroe cursed Connors. Sharapova vs. the Sisters Williams seemed destined to be the next act. But then Sharapova hurt her shoulder and the 22-year-old Russian has seen her ranking slump from No. 1 to No. 126. Former No. 1 Kim Clijsters is barely a week into her own comeback. Current No. 1 Dinara Safina is obviously talented but she has made pulses race with all the wild abandon of warm milk and cookies before bedtime. Mostly it has been Serena vs. all (yawn!) comers.

Hale believes this week's tournament could surpass the record attendance of 130,000 but also agrees the women's tour is a harder sell than it's male counterpart in Montreal this year.

"The difference is the men's tour has such a tremendous rivalry between Nadal and Federer playing in almost every final. In the women's tour we unfortunately don't have that. Serena has been tremendous winning three of the last four Grand Slams but she's playing different people every time.

There isn't that eagerness to watch a rivalry unfold. The men's game is as hot as it'll ever be. It hurts the women's game a bit because they are so popular."

Last year Nadal and Federer played a four-hour 48-minute final at Wimbledon regarded by some as the best match ever played. The day after Nadal's win, Tennis Canada sold $120,000 worth of tickets to the Rogers Cup men's tournament scheduled for Toronto. "But I think over the next five years things will even out. I don't know if the men's game can keep this momentum," Hale said. "For example, with the NBA, after Michael Jordan left it was tough to keep the momentum he induced because he made the sport so popular. You may see a similar situation as Federer and Nadal get later into their careers."

Secondly, the seeds for a rivalry within the WTA may be germinating.

The return of Sharapova is a boost. Then, Toronto could see a meeting between Safina, ranked No. 1 despite not having won a Grand Slam event, and Serena who sits at No. 2 with three majors in the win column. Serena has voiced her displeasure. A little controversy, Downey notes, isn't a bad thing.

"It doesn't have the (rivalry) level of Nadal and Federer but it's brewing.

Rivalries are very important. Not just for tennis. It's the nature of sport," Downey said. "You see it in hockey with the Maple Leafs and Montreal -- there's a sense of history when they get together. Tennis is the same. On the men's side there's no question Nadal and Federer are at an incredible level that rivals the McEnroe/Borg days."

Karl, in Montreal last week to watch the men's event, says the duo's star attraction is palpable.

"Fans love following the stars of the sport. In Montreal when Nadal and Federer are going around the grounds they are just swarmed. They have to get extra security. There's great anticipation for them. The women's tour, because of the lack of a rivalry, the interest isn't quite as big."

The players in rivalries at times don't realize the impact they've made.

Monica Seles, who once paired off against Steffi Graf as the game's biggest box-office draw and is being inducted into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame this week, regarded the symbiotic relationship between fan and player thusly: "These things tend to develop over time and as a player yourself you don't think about it that much. I know I had a rivalry going with Steffi, but the curious thing is that when we played each other it wasn't special to me. You realize, though, that it is for the people watching."

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WTA foreign content

94% of the top 50 players currently on the WTA tour are from Europe. Serena and Venus Williams (United States) and Samantha Stosur (Australia) are the only exceptions.


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