Women’s tennis tournament at La Costa lacks a certain star power

Venus Williams drew a crowd Friday night at the Farmers Insurance Classic, the line snaking through the crowded grounds of the Los Angeles Tennis Center with fans eager to get autographs on their copies of Venus’ book, “Come to Win.”

Williams was dressed impeccably, her silver earrings twinkling in the evening lights, her hair pulled into a prim bun. She wore a long and muted gray-colored sweater that reached her knees, and black jeans.

Her entire look said “author.” There was nothing that said “tennis.”

Even though Williams is in Southern California, the third-ranked player in the world had no interest in playing in the Mercury Insurance Open, which begins Monday at La Costa in Carlsbad — marking the return of women’s pro tennis to the San Diego County resort after a two-year absence.

“I’m playing in Cincinnati and Montreal,” was all Williams would say about why she wasn’t interested in driving down the coast to play at La Costa.

Serena Williams, ranked No. 1 in the world, has already announced she will play no warmup tournaments before the U.S. Open after suffering a mysterious foot injury involving a cut on glass at an unknown restaurant.

Serena has not been hiding out, though. She appeared at the Farmers Classic one day and posed for photos with James Blake, and she even managed a Twitter whine about not getting a free ticket to the tournament Saturday.

Last year when it was announced the WTA Tour was returning to La Costa, Maria Sharapova proclaimed her excitement. “I always loved going to La Costa,” Sharapova said. “I can hardly wait to go back.”

And indeed, Sharapova had won the last two events at La Costa, in 2006 and 2007. But Sharapova is not in the field either. She chose, instead, to play at Stanford, where she lost in the final Sunday to Victoria Azarenka, explaining it was a matter of managing her schedule with an eye on the U.S. Open.

Sharapova said in Palo Alto that she wanted to play, and then take a week off before the summer’s major tour events at Cincinnati and Montreal.

Raquel Giscafre, tournament director in La Costa, said her promotional efforts are different from when Sharapova or Steffi Graf and Monica Seles or Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were coming to the resort regularly.

“We promote the game now,” Giscafre said, “the experience of coming to La Costa, to the resort and for good tennis. We say we have 16 of the top 25 players in the world. We promote the game as a whole and not as individuals.”

Make that 15. Another example of the difficulty of promoting individuals: not more than a couple of hours after she beat Sharapova, Azarenka withdrew from La Costa.

“For us,” Giscafre said, “the tournament offers the experience of watching the pros, it’s not necessarily about watching a particular player.”

Jelena Jankovic, who has surpassed Venus Williams since Wimbledon to become No. 2 in the world, is seeded No. 1 at La Costa.

Only one American, U.S. Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin, made the main draw and she was scheduled to play Azarenka in the first round but may have caught a break with the Belarusian’s withdrawal. Samantha Stosur is seeded second with Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva seeded third.

Without the Williams sisters or Sharapova, the tournament has promoted the appearance of 34-year-old Lindsay Davenport, t who has ended a two-year retirement this summer to play doubles. She is coming off an unlikely championship with partner Liezel Huber on Sunday at Stanford. And she has given no indication she’ll withdraw.