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Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Roadmap requirements rendered toothless

This is supposed to be the Year of Change on the WTA tour. Or, more accurately, the year of the 2009 Roadmap -- an initiative, years in the making, that is designed to revamp the tour and have top players honor commitments to bigger events, including "Premier" $4.5 million tournaments Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing. Failure to play will result in zero rankings points for the missed event, a forced suspension for the following two tournament weeks and a fine.

Way to lay down the law.

The Roadmap will be put to its first big test in just more than a week for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. This is the tournament, of course, that Venus and Serena Williams have refused to play since 2001, when the sisters and their father, Richard Williams, claimed the crowd shouted racial epithets at them. But now, according to the Roadmap, Venus and Serena have to show up in the desert or suffer the consequences. If they skip the event, it means they won't be allowed to play the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami later in March, an event that, between them, they've won eight times in the past 11 years.

Venus and Serena Williams continue to insist that, Roadmap or not, they will never return to Indian Wells. So next month seems to be shaping up like a showdown: on one side, the Williams sisters holding steadfast to their principles, and on the other, the looming threat of fines and suspensions.

But wait. You better check the fine print of the Roadmap. It contains a clause -- an escape clause is more like it -- that renders the mandatory tournament requirement toothless. Instead of playing in a compulsory tournament, a player can do a promotional appearance that may, or may not, benefit the event, within a 125-mile radius of the tournament. In other words, you don't even need to show up at the event, shake hands with sponsors, or even pick up a tennis racket. Venus and Serena, for example, could fulfill their obligations in Indian Wells by promoting the awesome tennis scene in Southern California.

Though it's hard to fault the Williams sisters for staying away from Indian Wells, it's also clear the Roadmap isn't going to change much, if anything, on tour. How can fans take this new initiative seriously when the tour's top players, who are prone to skipping events for all sorts of reasons, can get out of their commitments by doing promotional appearances?

The Roadmap, we were told, was supposed to lay down the law. But it turns out that it's more business as usual.