Commentary

Chase the moments, not money

Originally Published: August 5, 2010
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Younger players have been doing well for a change. Victoria Azarenka turned 21 years old last week and celebrated by winning the Bank of the West Classic, beating down a tiring Maria Sharapova in a high-pitched slugfest. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, is the only teenager in the WTA top 100. She took the title in Istanbul, coming from a set and 4-0 down against Elena Vesnina. Caroline Wozniacki, 20, is a strong favorite to win her home title in Copenhagen this week.

But those are all small events at the level of the old Tier IIIs or IVs. The trio's next challenge is to become a presence at the biggest tournaments. They've done that intermittently -- last year, Azarenka won the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, Wozniacki reached the final of the U.S. Open and Pavlyuchenkova made the semifinals of Indian Wells. All must have been hoping to match or improve on those achievements this season, but it hasn't happened yet.

[+] EnlargeAnastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty ImagesAnastasia Pavlyuchenkova has reached six quarterfinals (or better) this season, but none has come in Tier I or Grand Slam events.

Partly, it's because they're still developing their games. The intense, hard-hitting Azarenka has to become more consistent. Wozniacki is consistent but has to up her aggression and power. Pavlyuchenkova needs to up her fitness and gain a little more experience.

Injuries are another reason for their less-than-stellar results. Wozniacki suffered a sprained ankle, Azarenka has leg problems and Pavlyuchenkova has been hindered by a foot stress fracture.

Although players can't control when they get injured, none has helped herself by trying to play through her problems. Clichéd though it sounds, learning to peak for the big events is an essential for would-be champions. That means controlling your schedule rather than letting it control you.

After retiring with leg problems in April at the Andalucia Tennis Experience event in Marbella, Spain, Azarenka played four tournaments in five weeks, failing to win consecutive matches and retiring in the first round of two of those events. Wozniacki was on a fine run early in the season but hurt her ankle at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C., then played during six of the next seven weeks.

Not the ideal run-up to the French Open and Wimbledon, where both lost to Petra Kvitova, who ended up making the semifinals at the All England Club.

Why the crazy itinerary?

"According to the rules, you have to go on court all the time, which didn't allow me time to get ready and stay healthy," Azarenka told ESPN.com earlier this year. "I always have to push myself to go on court, so otherwise you get fined like crazy."

Her good friend Wozniacki gave the same reason. "Well, you know, there are some rules on the WTA Tour, and we have to follow those rules," she said. "Maybe it would have been better if I could have taken a few weeks off, but those are the rules, and I did what I had to do."

Fines for pulling out of a tournament are based on the importance of the event and the ranking of the player. Azarenka could be fined up to $25,000 and Wozniacki could be fined up to $50,000 for missing an event.

"It's not just a fine," Wozniacki added. "It's also commitment tournaments, zero-pointers. Yeah, some other things that plays in mind, and if you read the rules, you'll know."

Top players get bonus money for fulfilling all their tournament commitments (playing all four Premier Mandatory events, four of five Premier Five events and two Premier 700 events). Wozniacki stands to get $500,000 and Azarenka $250,000 based on their rankings at the beginning of the year. Missing one means a ranking penalty like having to count a "zero-pointer," and players who don't play the required number of Premier events are not allowed to play any of the smaller International events. In Wozniacki's case, that would have meant missing her home event in Copenhagen this week.

In the end, the issue is about control. Any tournament entry system has to strike a balance between a tournament's need to know its field and a player's need to adjust her schedule based on health and results. The balance of power was once in favor of the players, who could withdraw from a tournament without significant penalties as long as they were injured. But a growing epidemic of last-minute pullouts and dubious doctor's notes made the tour brass decide it would get out of "the business of making the judgment call" about whether a player was too unfit to play.

The tour's new Roadmap, introduced in 2009, tilted the rules in favor of the big tournaments in return for a sharp increase in prize money. The top players now have the majority of their schedule predetermined, and withdrawal penalties would apply regardless of whether injury was the cause.

Still, just as with Serena Williams last year, it's mystifying to watch the likes of Wozniacki and Azarenka twisting themselves into knots to avoid getting dinged by fines or to collect a bonus at the end of the year and complain loudly about being forced to do so. Even if the system is pushing them to play (a whole other discussion), it's mostly a financial trade-off. Why not call it the cost of staying healthy or playing to your needs?

Even putting aside fines, bonus pools and the like, a top pro has to choose her tournaments wisely because she'll tend to go deep into tournaments and can't play week after week like someone who usually loses in the first or second round. One problem is that such calculations aren't necessarily predictable -- a player who hits a hot streak can find her schedule suddenly out of sync with her recent form. This is especially true of up-and-comers, who can improve in leaps and bounds yet often struggle to transition to their new status. It's tempting to continue signing up for every tournament feasible, particularly if they've only recently been released from age restrictions or have become famous enough to collect appearance fees from smaller events.

After winning her first tour title in Monterrey, Mexico, in March, Pavlyuchenkova continued to play her original schedule even as her foot began to trouble her in Miami. But a medical checkup at her next event pointed toward taking some time off, and perhaps because she's ranked too low for the bonus pool, she did. "With me, I think I wasn't used to play a lot of tournaments in a row," Pavlyuchenkova told ESPN.com earlier this year. "I won my first title, lot of emotions, it was something new. And then I played Indian Wells, Miami, it was a lot of tournaments in a row in the U.S.

"I think my body wasn't used to it as well. I'm still quite young, and I think I'm still growing sometimes in a way, you know. So maybe this was the main point of my injury. … It was like a sign for me to stop playing so much."

After winning in Stanford, Azarenka pulled out of this week's event in San Diego. She cited a shoulder injury, although all signs suggest it was nothing truly serious. But Azarenka's impressive performance at Stanford suggests she's going to be a threat for the rest of the summer, and playing four weeks in a row with only a week off before the U.S. Open is a little overambitious for someone who could be a contender.

So is this a change of mindset? Maybe, or maybe it's just her agent reading the rulebook closely. Players get up to two medical withdrawals a year, which top-10 players use for only Premier 700 events like San Diego. Get a doctor's note and show up on site to do some promotional activities (which Azarenka did, taking part in Kids Day), and there's no fine for pulling out.

Now if only this kind of thought could go into avoiding exhaustion and injuries instead of merely avoiding fines.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.