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Women’s Tennis Gets Act Together

Times Staff Writer

Three of the four women’s quarterfinals in the French Open in June could have easily been finals in previous years: defending champion Jennifer Capriati vs. Jelena Dokic; three-time champion Monica Seles vs. Venus Williams; and former champion Mary Pierce vs. Serena Williams.

Femmes de Paris.

Only the femmes were relegated to the secondary show venue at Roland Garros, Court Suzanne Lenglen. The WTA objected before, during and afterward, and Capriati, Venus and Serena criticized the decision. Serena called on the players to push the issue, saying, “It can’t be one person pushing the boat, you have to have more.”

Well, the hands on the deck got the job done. Kevin Wulff, the WTA’s chief executive, told The Times in a recent interview that the tour reached an agreement with the French Open on the issue. At least two of the women’s quarterfinals will be held on Center Court, he said.

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“The French Open has agreed to treat the quarterfinals equal with the men’s,” Wulff said. “This is an important thing. They [the players] were supportive in making sure the tennis powers were very aware of it.”

Paris is only one leading example of how the top players are stepping forward more often on key tour issues, realizing perception is sometimes as important as reality. Closer to home, this is what happened in March during an often-contentious fight to find a new home for the season-ending WTA Championships. The event moved from New York to Munich, Germany, last year, and attendance plummeted from 94,133 to 36,500.

Venus Williams skipped the event because of a wrist injury, and Seles has refused to play tournaments in Germany since her 1993 stabbing in Hamburg. And organizers of sporting events, in the United States and abroad, have felt the economic downturn since 9/11.

Once some of the marquee players realized there was a chance to elevate the WTA Championships, lifting it out of a secondary status, they got behind the effort to shift the event to Staples Center. Among the most outspoken were Seles and Lindsay Davenport. The event, which starts Wednesday and finishes with the Monday night final, features 16 singles players and eight doubles teams in a single-elimination format.

And the three who have come to Los Angeles for various appearances to drum up interest in the tournament have been Seles, Serena Williams and Davenport.

Interestingly, all three are IMG clients. The management firm was the primary opposition behind the move to Staples, objecting to the proliferation of tournaments in Southern California. IMG has ties to the Indian Wells event in March and Manhattan Beach in August. Officials at the San Diego tournament, which is the week before Manhattan Beach, were worried about over-saturation too.

But the three players, in particular, realized what is good for them could be beneficial for the tour. Serena Williams is interested in an acting career and will appear on the “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” this week and may work as a correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight” from the WTA’s fashion show Monday night. Seles always wanted to finish her career by playing in the WTA Championships at least one more time, and that, of course, wouldn’t have happened in Germany.

Davenport can stay in her own home at Laguna Beach until just before the event. And she pointed out that it makes sense to be in a major U.S. market with so many Americans at the top of the world rankings. The last 10 Grand Slam tournaments were won by Serena (three), Venus (four) and Capriati (three). Among the 16 players who qualified for the singles spots, six are Americans -- Serena and Venus, Capriati, Davenport, Seles and Chanda Rubin.

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Officials for the event would not reveal advance ticket sales. Not surprisingly, momentum slowed during the Angels’ run to the World Series championship.

“They’ve got some work to do,” Wulff said recently. “They’re less than they thought they’d be at this stage. They started off like gangbusters and then it slowed down. We probably should have done more over the summer. It’s solid. But they’re used to selling out here.

“Momentum will pick up again. They’re optimistic.”

Tournament director John Arrix said that has happened in the last week. “Tennis is different from any other sport,” he said Friday. “It’s not going to be an instant success. It’s not like a Rolling Stones concert where people hit the phones. It’s a long-term relationship. We’ve had an event in Jacksonville for 23 years. It takes some time. There’s so much out there.”

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That’s one of the problems facing both the men’s and women’s tours. One week, the men may be spread across the globe, playing in Sweden, Russia and Switzerland. It’s not quite as extreme on the women’s side, but Davenport would like to see a model based on the men’s Masters Series, in which the top players are required to play nine tournaments.

“You’ve got to go back through the schedule and see if maybe they could schedule the tournaments a little bit better,” she said.

Wulff said that 13 WTA tournaments established all-time attendance records in 2002. The WTA has reached a deal with Porsche as its North American sponsor, according to the Sports Business Journal. And Wulff said a long-term international television deal will be announced during the WTA Championships, as well as other agreements.

He said the WTA is making a necessary move from purely governance and service to one of “a more commercial entity.”

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“There’s a feeling the tournaments would market themselves,” he said. “There was never the ability to bring in any funding to expand beyond that. In the world of sport, there’s a new economic model needed. The tournaments had maxed out their ability to sell their existing inventory.”

Davenport acknowledged the new business reality.

“It’s a great time for women’s tennis, but then the economy is not doing so well, so it’s hard to ask all these companies to invest all this time and money with us when obviously they’re struggling themselves,” she said. “There certainly has never been a better time or more exciting time than there is now.”

Commercial success at Staples, for example, can only accentuate that point.

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“If the players continue to play at the level they’re playing and continue to try and do all the promotions they can, [the tour] has no choice but to grow and get better and better,” Davenport said.


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