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Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Wretched WTA hard-court swing

The U.S. Open Series is already halfway through for the women, and this much is clear: The WTA's top players could not care less. Yep, just like last year, the U.S. Open Series is quickly devolving into a bit of a joke, proof yet again that the WTA is powerless when it comes to delivering its talent for the summer hard-court season and the USTA's principle marketing vehicle leading into the U.S. Open.

Whether it was injuries or indifference, most of the top players -- Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva -- decided to skip the first two Series events, in Los Angles and then Stanford, Calif. Serena Williams played Stanford, where she retired with an ankle injury. World No. 2 Jelena Jankovic bypassed Stanford but entered Los Angeles, where she was upset in the semifinals. The No. 6 player in the world, Anna Chakvetadze, took the unusual step of competing in both events, though despite her ranking, she crashed and burned in the early rounds in each tournament.

As of July 28, the top five points leaders in the series were Dinara Safina (1), Aleksandra Wozniak (2), Marion Bartoli (3), Flavia Pennetta (4) and Jelena Jankovic (5).

Somewhere, Arlen Kantarian, the CEO for professional tennis for the USTA and the architect of the U.S. Open Series, must be on the phone with Yogi Berra. "Yo, Yogi, it's déjà vu all over again, my man."

Last summer, the beginning of each week was often greeted with the announcement that top WTA players were pulling out of U.S. Open warm-up events. At the Rogers Cup in Toronto for example, the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova all withdrew due to ailments like thumb, hip, knee and leg injuries.

The Rogers Cup has rebounded nicely this week, with most of the top players except Serena and Venus Williams in the draw. That's the good news. The bad news is there's only one more U.S. Open Series event on the schedule for the women -- in New Haven, Conn., the week before the U.S. Open. How many stars -- many of whom will be playing the Olympics in Beijing before New Haven -- will actually show up in the Nutmeg state rather than rest up for the Open? As of this week, the highest-ranked player listed on the Pilot Pen Web site is No. 14, Agnes Szavay.

Clearly, women's tennis is taking a summer vacation. And then people wonder how Jelena Jankovic, a wonderfully talented player, can mathematically become No. 1 this week even though she's never reached a Grand Slam final.

Meanwhile, most of the men compete in the key U.S. Open Series events (at least the ones designated as Masters Series). What's up with the women? Why can't they stay healthy? Why does their interest seem to wane?

The WTA has a long-term plan, dubbed the Road Map, which goes into effect in 2010, to address this problem. It's designed to fight player injury and fatigue, and reduce tournament commitments. Will this make players fresher and more inclined to support summer tennis in the U.S.? We will see.

In the meantime, it might be time to rethink the branding of the U.S. Open Series. The USTA calls it the "Greatest Road Trip in Sports." But for women's tennis, it might as well be labeled "The Greatest Train Wreck in Sports."