What went wrong with Indian Wells?
Geographic sprawl, injuries and personal desires make it repeatedly unlikely that the top women will gather in the same place. The Pacific Life Open is a perfect example, Joel Drucker writes.
You've got to hand it to Serena Williams, coming out of nowhere to win the Australian Open.
You've got to hand it to Martina Hingis, taking the title in Tokyo.
You've got to hand it to Amelie Mauresmo, always supporting her homeland by playing the February indoor event in Paris.
Hand it to Venus Williams, winning the first tournament she's played since last summer. And to Justine Henin, rebounding from a split with her husband to win the desert double of Dubai and Doha.
So with all these hands being given out, why is the plotline of the 2007 WTA Tour so hard to grasp?
The good news is that each week there's usually no more than one significant women's pro event. This is in contrast to the ATP, which sometimes features as many as three tournaments on three different continents in the same week.
The bad news is that geographic sprawl, injuries and personal desires make it repeatedly unlikely that these top women will gather in the same place. Williams hasn't played a match since winning the Australian. Venus opted to enter a smaller event in Memphis rather than throw herself that same week into a deeper field in Dubai.
And then there's the matter of the tournament that gets under way this week, the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif. -- a tournament lacking such 2007 titlists as Serena, Venus, Henin, Mauresmo and Kim Clijsters. It's a sad state of affairs that a Tier I event that draws more people than any event short of a Grand Slam has such a weak draw. Of the 96 women entered at Indian Wells, only Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova have won Grand Slam singles titles in this millennium.
What went awry with Indian Wells? Years ago, a news article cited the impact Michael Jordan's retirement had on the stock prices of the companies whose products he endorsed. In a similar way, Indian Wells' woes can traced back to an incident that occurred in 2001. That was the year when Venus and Serena were set to play one another in the semifinals, only to have Venus default five minutes before the start of the match. The elliptical way in which this was communicated by the sisters, coupled with the cryptic comments made by their father Richard, suggested the default was triggered by something other than a legitimate injury. Two days later, when Serena took the court to play the finals, an angry crowd booed her. Serena and Venus haven't been seen at Indian Wells since.
The antipathy Serena and Venus have shown towards Indian Wells was a tipping-point incident. In 2001, they were on their way to becoming the two best players in the sport, meeting in six Grand Slam finals over the next two years. How it works in tennis is that the leaders set the tune.
That they have repeatedly shunned a significant tournament in the state where they grew up in many ways signaled to other players that perhaps Indian Wells wasn't worth taking too seriously. When the tour decided to make one tournament a year mandatory for all appropriately ranked players, it settled on the already more prominent event in Key Biscayne, Fla.
From a North American tennis lover's standpoint, the erosion of Indian Wells is unfortunate. This is the first women's event since Australia to have significant national television coverage. Women's tennis fans who've read short dispatches about other events, or seen portions of them on The Tennis Channel, are hankering to watch lots of tennis featuring current stars and rising ingenues.
But even though tennis hopes a few times a year to crawl into the North American sports window, that's sadly of little concern to many pro tennis players. After all, tennis is a global sport, so why should someone like Mauresmo -- a national icon in France -- try to swim upstream in America?
So goes the flow of a global sport. Check out the disparate locales of the WTA Tour's early year. Following the Australian Open, it's off in consecutive weeks to Tokyo, Paris, Antwerp, Dubai, Doha, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.
While men are automatically entered in the ATP's nine Masters Series events (which occur in geographical and chronological proximity to one another), the nonlinear flow of the women's tour makes it impossible to enforce any kind of participation.
Instead, each player constructs her own personalized agenda. Tokyo is significant for many players with certain endorsement deals (blondes are exceptionally exotic to the Japanese). Mauresmo aims her winter toward Paris and the spring clay-court season. Can you blame Venus for wanting to go to Memphis rather than fly thousands of miles to the Middle East? Dubai and Doha are irresistible, oil-rich lands where players are treated like queens (though unlike on the ATP, official policy decrees that no WTA events can give appearance money).
WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott envisions a reformed tour with a shorter calendar and entry rules that increase the penalties for player withdrawals. But it's unclear if anything short of a supersonic jet can alter scheduling choices and make the early part of the year one with a compelling plotline.
In large part, much of the current women's schedule, sadly, is analogous to the way many women play tennis: plenty of sound and fury, signifying nothing. With itineraries and draws flowing in all directions, the best advice for tennis fans is to be delighted by the occasional thickening drama, let the chips fall where they may -- California, Florida, South Carolina, Warsaw, Berlin, Rome -- and zero in come Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
Hopefully by then all hands will be on deck.