Changing of the guardToronto fans are seeing first-hand the new wave of women's tennis
By GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun
It may go against the popular view to say that Toronto tennis fans miss the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport (four of the top seven world-ranked players) like Argos fans miss the second coming of J.I. Albrecht. But it's not far off the truth.
Even without the absent prima donnas, the Rogers AT&T Cup tournament boasts the world's No. 1 player in Kim Clijsters and her challenger, Justine Henin-Hardenne, as well as a flock of hard-hitting Russians who will help keep up the standard of women's tennis and the interest of Toronto tennis fans.
Watching the play at York University's Tennis Centre the past few days, I couldn't help feeling we may soon see a changing of the guard in women's tennis from the Williamses and Capriatis to Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne and, definitely, to future Russian stars such as 16-year-old Maria Sharapova (even though she was eliminated on Tuesday), Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the latter Martina Navratilova's doubles partner.
Toronto's knowledgeable tennis fans seem to sense it, and their attendance, even in rain-threatening weather, is the proof in the pudding.
Stacey Allaster, the tournament director, is more disturbed by the way certain prima donnas cancelled their appearances, but is pleased with the response of the Toronto tennis fans, albeit most of the tickets were sold in well-promoted advance sales.
"We knew of Venus Williams' injury and anticipated she wouldn't be able to play, but her sister's (Serena) choice of preferring filming over her commitment to play here, that's unfair," Allaster said. "The worst was Capriati, though. She was still coming as of last Wednesday and then cancelled on Friday. Anna Kournikova has been out with an injury most of the season and Monica Seles hasn't played since May, so their injuries are legitimate.
"But the fans are enjoying the battle of the Belgians (Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne) and we've sold a large number of tickets. I expect that our attendance will be somewhere between 140,000 and 145,000. It will all depend on the walk-up crowds in the last couple of days. Our largest attendance was in 2001 when we sold 149,000 tickets for the week."
Allaster, a member of the board of directors of the Women's Tennis Association, will take up the unwarranted absenteeism at the next board meeting and has her own thoughts on what should be done with the guilty players.
"There are nine Tier 1 tournaments and six of the nine had not received player commitments," she said. "Our operating cost is two, three, four, five times bigger than those of Tier 2 tournaments, yet some players don't respect it.
"All we require from them is a commitment. I don't expect that 10 of the top 10 would show up because we're never going to be perfect. What is necessary is that some action should be taken against irresponsible players. In WTA tournaments, we should adopt the ranking points system like the one the men have. In fact, Larry Scott, the new CEO of the WTA, will have to overhaul the entire system, probably for the 2005 season."
Allaster figures it cannot be done in time for 2004, in part because of it being an Olympic year. However, she'll promote the idea of redistribution of the ranking point system in Tier 1 and Tier 2 and, she says, players should receive zero points if they don't show.
The Toronto tournament director also feels that all the events have to be organized in the right time slots, particularly the Tier 1 championships.
Incidentally, the nine Tier 1 events are: Tokyo, Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston, Berlin, Toronto, Rome, Moscow and Zurich, with San Diego being elevated to Tier 1 in 2004.
"It's not the legitimate injuries that bother me, but it's those suspect ones," Allaster said. "We have 1,000 volunteers giving up their time to work on this tournament and the sponsors invest millions of dollars. So it's not much to expect a commitment from the players."
She no doubt had the irresponsible prima donnas in mind, not the superbly gifted Belgians or Russians.
It's too bad there is no Canadian talent available to drive local interest even higher, but that's a topic for another day.