TENNIS / ELLIOTT ALMOND : 'Stupid System' Blamed for Navratilova's Defeat

Reeling from the loss of Martina Navratilova in the third round of the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, tournament director Jerry Diamond took exception to the way women's tennis organizes its events.

"Martina lost to the system, the stupid system that requires players (to) play a 56 (player) draw because they want to make room for the 190th player in the world (to) make an $800 paycheck," said Diamond, a past director of the Women's Tennis Assn.

"It's crazy. It doesn't make any sense."

Navratilova was by far the biggest draw in Diamond's week-long event at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach. Adding to the lure was her impending retirement after the Virginia Slims Championships in New York in November.

As an eight-time winner of the tournament, Navratilova was hoping to say farewell to Los Angeles in style by reaching today's final. Instead, after playing almost five hours of grueling tennis Wednesday night--she had a three-set singles victory and then played doubles--she returned to the court Thursday afternoon exhausted. Navratilova, 37, lost in three sets to No. 46 Ann Grossman.

With a 56-player draw, the top players must compete five days during the week if they reach the final. Diamond said if they reduced the draw to 28, the sport's stars would have a better chance to recover during the week. The lesser-ranked players would still have a chance because the qualifying field would be expanded to include all 56.

And tournament directors would not be left with a weakened field for the semifinals.

"You're killing the top players," Diamond said.

Mike Davies, general manager of the International Tennis Federation in London, said no system will please everyone.

"Obviously, if you give the top players a bye, they have one less match to play and they are protected a little bit," he said.

There are other reasons to keep the field at 56 for the Tour's Tier 1 ($750,000) and Tier 2 ($400,000) events.

The tournaments are scheduled when a maximum number of players want to compete, said Ann Person Worcester, managing director of the Women's Tennis Council in New York.

With the U.S. Open two weeks away, all players want the chance to hone their skills against the best competition possible.

"(Also) we have about 500 players on the computer (rankings)," Worcester said. "So, giving 56 players jobs is kind of a minimum."

Diamond suggests the sport is run by the "also-rans" who want to play every week because they lose in the first or second rounds. For them, fatigue is not a factor.

"They don't care because they get a paycheck every week," he said. "But the sport can't support that many players. It is ridiculous to have anybody in this tournament ranked above 125."

Diamond had 15.

No. 159, Mercedes Paz of Argentina, a member of the Women's Tennis Assn. board of directors, dismissed such sentiment. She said today's tour is so competitive, the lower-ranked players deserve berths.

Indeed, when Grossman defeats Navratilova one day and Amy Frazier upsets No. 3 Conchita Martinez the next, as was the case in Los Angeles, it does appear the competition is tightening.

"The players here, they don't want to play on the farm clubs," said Diamond, who thinks a minor league system is needed. "They want the big-time right now. You tell them they are not good enough for the big-time, they say, 'Well, I know, but I want a shot at it.' "

And because of that, Diamond says, the fans lose.

"Now the people who bought tickets for the weekend are cheated out of seeing Martina because she had to play two nights in a row and she ran out of steam," Diamond said.

"Does that benefit the sport?"

It is a question that needs to be addressed.

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In an effort to make the game more relevant, the ATP recently passed several measures to speed up play and allow more fan involvement. Not all the players are receptive to the changes.

"If they want to make it more attractive, have nude girls on the tennis court," Boris Becker said.

The most controversial rule reduces the time between points from 25 to 20 seconds.

"I was thinking so much about the (20) seconds that I couldn't think about the serve," Becker said of his play at the recent Los Angeles Open.

Top-ranked Pete Sampras was not so concerned. He said in a statement, "I think that there is too much toweling off and there are too many other delays."

In another change, spectators will be allowed to react during points, as long as they do not intend to distract players. Andre Agassi, a crowd favorite, welcomes the participation.

"I think giving the crowd a little bit more freedom to support the players they want to support or cheer against the players they don't like is what sports is all about," Agassi said.

Also, spectators seated above the lowest tier of seats near the court will be allowed to move freely in and out of the stadium during play. Chair umpires will no longer delay play for spectator movement in the upper tier, unless it is meant to distract players.

"To take 15 extra seconds waiting to serve because somebody is not seated straight up and down in their chair is a little bit ridiculous," Agassi said.

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With a dearth of stars on the women's tour, and no sponsor for next season, the sport seems to be going through a transition. But as Navratilova retires and Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati remain on the sidelines, others are filling the void.

As evidenced at the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, dramatic, entertaining tennis still is being played. The names simply might not be recognizable.

"It's just that the young players are going to have to realize they have to take over and control the sport that they get money from," said Zina Garrison-Jackson, who at 32 is nearing the end of her career.

"They have to understand that it's not just about being on the court, that you have to do things you don't want to do."

She said such players as Mary Joe Fernandez, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez must emerge as the next generation of personalities.

Tennis Notes

The United States Tennis Assn.'s league sectionals, featuring 78 teams and 981 players, will be contested Thursday through Sunday at various sites around Southern California. Winning teams will advance to national finals, to be contested in late September and early October across the country. This year's Southern California sectionals will mark the retirement of coordinator Peggy Rijkschroeff, who has held the position for 14 years. . . . More than 600 youngsters 10-18 will take part in the Reebok-Jimmy Connors Hardcourt Challenge this week at the Whittier Narrows Tennis Center. The event includes a tournament and a free festival Monday, starting at 10 a.m.

The USTA will hold a recreational tennis leadership workshop Nov. 4-6 at the Industry Hills Sheraton. . . . The U.S. Professional Tennis Assn. will hold a national buying show Sept. 21-22 in conjunction with its national convention in La Quinta. . . . The Santa Monica Celebrity Classic will be held Sept. 2-5 at the Malibu Racquet Club.

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Times staff writer Wendy Witherspoon contributed to this column.

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