Allaster serves up change

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:03 AM ET

Anna Kournikova made news the other day when she announced she might make a return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour after a period away from competitive tennis.

A comeback by tennis' first poster girl for the Internet age, as someone once called her, will no doubt be met with 21-byte salutes by computer geeks around the world.

Nevertheless, the news caught the attention of incoming WTA president Stacey Allaster, the 15-year veteran of Tennis Canada, who officially starts her new job in January.

Kournikova's potential return again brings up the question of marketing off-court glamour over on-court acumen, something the WTA has embraced in recent years. On the local front, the no-shows and early withdrawals from the glam set at last summer's Rogers Cup at the Rexall Centre -- Maria Sharapova being the most talked about, as well as Venus and Serena Williams -- and the uproar that followed cast a critical eye on the wisdom of selling sex appeal.

Allaster, who was vice-president of Tennis Canada and tournament director for the Roger's Cup women's and men's championships, was again quick to point out the strong field last summer despite the no-shows -- Kim Clijsters, who would go on to win, Amelie Mauresmo, and Justine Henin-Hardenne, all currently top-six ranked players.

Still, when you have the glamour players on your tournament posters, and you're using their images to sell the event, don't be surprised if there's a loud hue and cry from some of the people who bought the tickets if the beautiful people don't show or pull out because of injury.

There's a fine line, Allaster conceded, in the sale of sex appeal and entertainment over sport, something she'll be grappling with in her new job.

Kournikova, despite her millions of dollars in off-court endorsements, never has won a singles title. Sharapova seems a far better model for the WTA moving forward.

"I can't say Anna did damage to our sport," Allaster said. "She attracted predominantly a young male sports fan we hadn't been able to capture yet. Whether she's a rock star or tennis player, she's an entertainer. Maria wants to be No. 1 in the world first and foremost. Being a model is secondary."

Allaster talked about the "social responsibility" the WTA has in marketing its players, in a way that's respectful to women.

The answer to avoiding a repeat of last summer's Rogers Cup, she added, is a more streamlined and shortened competitive WTA schedule. The fact the WTA is at a fork in the road is no revelation. That's the walnut she and Sony Ericsson WTA Tour chairman and CEO Larry Scott will set out to crack the moment she sets foot in her new office in St. Petersburg, Fla.

What happened in Toronto was reflective of what has been happening all over the WTA, a scheduling system that she said is not dependable enough. There are too many events. The intensity of play and the off-court demands creates too much of a strain on the women. That leads to injuries.

And, too many of the better players are taking part in lesser-ranked events because of guaranteed money that's being offered.

Allaster said they're looking at a three-week break in the schedule after Wimbledon, when the injuries usually start piling up, and players start saving themselves for the U.S. Open in September.

The tour is looking at a longer off-season -- some players are even asking for 12 weeks.

"We're coming down to some difficult decisions," she said. "Who do we want to be? How many events should we have, and where should those events be?"

Allaster likes the idea of creating a rookie tour, or a developmental tour, rather than a large WTA tour that she says tries to be all things to all people. More prize money, and a larger percentage of it allocated to the tournament's top stars, that's one of her objectives.

She said the WTA will weigh something like the ATP's Master Series -- mandatory play events with a rankings system and bonus money designed to get the top players playing against each other more often, adding prestige to a select few events. Toronto, with its world-class facility and big sponsorship bucks, would be at the front of the line in becoming one of those stopovers.

MESSY WORK

But someone has to do the messy work of going to those tournament organizers on the outs and telling them they're off the schedule -- for the overall good of the WTA. Not an easy task, especially since those tournaments will have to be financially compensated.

"The sport has known for years it has to change, but it's never had the resolve or financial wherewithal to take the next step," Allaster said.


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