Oh, What Might Have Been

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Good thing for the organizers of the State Farm Evert Cup that the tournament begins today. Any more players pulling out and it would have been a bunch of ball kids taking turns hitting against Steffi Graf.

Attrition has been hurting the rejuvenated event at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort at Indian Wells, which had hoped to gain from a new format that combines the women's tournament with the men's Newsweek Champions Cup, which begins Monday.

Depending on the day, the Evert Cup had three of the hottest draws in women's tennis: Co-No. 1 players Graf and Monica Seles and the unranked but intriguing Jennifer Capriati. The tournament also had one of the game's fastest rising stars, No. 5 Anke Huber, who lost to Seles in the final of the Australian Open, and one of its most enduringly popular, Gabriela Sabatini.

Well, Graf and Capriati are still in the tournament. Huber was the latest to leave. She got news on Thursday that her grandmother had died in Germany and she rushed to join her family. Also pulling out Thursday was American Lori McNeil, who was ill. Seles and Sabatini withdrew earlier in the week, each with injuries.

Seldom does such an epidemic of illness and injury strike so many, but such is the luck of this tournament. Still, many events would love to have Graf, Capriati and Conchita Martinez, No. 2 in the world.

All involved with the tournament have high hopes that the format--which is rarely found outside Grand Slam events--will catapult it, along with the men's event, into the rarefied air occupied by the Lipton Championships and a handful of other mega-events.

"I think it's going to be good, there are so few things like it on the tour," said fifth-seeded Chanda Rubin. "It's more of an event. It's better for the fans."

Rubin noted the disparity in prize money for the men's and women's events--the men's purse is $2.2 million and the women's $550,000--and said that until the women's prize money is raised the field could not be expected to compare well to the men's.

"Definitely, it needs to be improved," she said. "The men benefit from the prize money and of course that means they draw all the top players. The top women would come here if the prize money was up there, like a Tier I."

Tournament organizers say they intend to raise the prize money next year to qualify for Tier I status, which requires a minimum prize purse of $926,250.

Rubin, who broke into the top 10 after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, said money is always an issue, but seldom the issue.

"Everyone wants to be at a tournament that has top players," she said. "It creates an atmosphere. Lipton is like that, and I'm sure this event will get there. The schedule works better now. It'll happen."

First-round play is expected to be completed Saturday with the second round Sunday.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Evert Cup

* Dates: Today through March 15

* Site: Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Indian Wells

* TV: ESPN will provide live coverage March 11-16. ESPN2 will provide live and tape-delayed coverage March 12-15.

* Prize money: $550,000

* Field: Features top-seeded Steffi Graf, Conchita Martinez, Mary Joe Fernandez, Lindsay Davenport, Chanda Rubin and Jennifer Capriati.

* Defending champion: Mary Joe Fernandez.

* Ticket information:

(800) 999-1585.

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