A tour with no duty

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

The meaning of the word "tour" sure has changed.

Think back to how the concept of a tour developed.

People simply were trying to find a way to make a living. So they came up with something they thought they could sell. Then, to earn enough money to survive, they packed up and took their act on the road.

Medicine shows. Circuses. Rock and roll. Most sports, especially back in the early days.

Tours of all sorts were based on the same economic principle: You had to move around in order to drum up enough interest in what you were doing to support yourself.

But what happens to the notion of a "tour" when the most famous individuals on it don't really need the money anymore?

What happens when the people who sell the most tickets practically can pick and choose which tour stops they want to make, and yet they still can get rich?

What we're left with is the collapse of an antiquated business model. And that brings us to the year 2005 and the challenges facing the Women's Tennis Association "tour."

Women's tennis is not the only sport that has trouble getting its best and most recognizable players together for anything other than a major event. But what is an annoyance in other sports has crippled women's tennis, and that fact has been driven home in a painful way this week in Toronto.

The Rogers Cup has been plagued by dropouts and withdrawals due to injuries and illnesses. And even if the players' health issues are legitimate, you can't blame Canadian tennis fans for being confused.

All week long, the theme from various camps has been, "These players are playing too much." Well, apparently they're playing too much everywhere but here, right?

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova said on Wednesday that the various tournament directors have to "get a clue" and shorten the season. Tennis Canada tournament director Stacey Allaster did not take Navratilova's jibe personally, but Allaster did offer a general response on behalf of her colleagues.

"The tournament directors do get it," Allaster insisted. "We know the season is too long. But the other side of the equation is, the players want more jobs.

"We keep adding tournaments because the lower-ranked players want a longer season. The higher-ranked players want fewer events and they want to play less. Player No. 1 and player No. 150 have different needs and objectives."

The reason the big-name players can focus almost exclusively on the Grand Slams is that they are not desperate for the money the smaller tour stops provide, as good as that money may be. Given past triumphs and marketing opportunities, Sharapova is not going to be facing a cold Russian winter without any heat in her home because she skipped Toronto. The Williams sisters aren't heading back to the mean streets of Compton because neither could stomach a full week at York University.

The WTA is caught between a rock and a hard court. If the schedule stays as is, frustration will continue in numerous cities. If the schedule gets cut, it will help the divas avoid the public-relations beating they take when they pass up events, but it will screw the lesser lights who need competition to develop.

And by the way, if tourneys are going to get axed, how do you choose which ones, exactly? Would Allaster simply shrug and accept it if she were told that Canada is on the hit list?

"Absolutely not," Allaster said.

"We're trying to address those issues, but they're not easy. We don't have a financial treasure chest where one could go to an existing tournament and say, 'For the good of tennis, we're buying you out.' That's the only way something like that can happen in a responsible manner, and even in a legal manner."

Meanwhile, the WTA "tour" continues, if you can call it that.

"I think it still is a tour," Allaster said. "But what does the tour want to be?"

Good question. Apparently the old notion of barnstorming is out.


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