Sunday, September 21, 2014

Where Do We Go From Here? Part 2 The WTA

by Savannah

Serena Williams via Getty Images photo af75e243-263c-4b9e-93f7-6dae85427747_zps012d9408.jpg
Photo via Getty Images

There is no doubt who the Queen of Tennis is. Serena Williams has dominated her sport for the last couple of years, and her victory over an overmatched Caroline Wozniacki gave her her 18th Grand Slam Victory,more than the man some worship as a deity on earth despite the Herculean efforts of some, more than the candy pusher, and equal with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. No one wanted to think this could happen but it has and barring injury or lack of interest there's no reason to think she doesn't have one more in her. This was not her best season, there was no way she was going to duplicate 2013, but she still managed to reach this milestone.

But Serena is not the WTA tour and at 32 she is a tennis senior citizen. So what about the rest of the tour? Where are the future superstars coming from? Can they be identified or are they going to be chosen for us by the large PR firms that control much of what goes on in tennis?

The current generation has sorted itself out. After Serena who has accomplished so much on the court, there are the image driven successes of Maria Sharapova, who has won 5 Grand Slams and was supposed to win more according to the hype. There is Serena's older sister Venus Williams who has 7 Grand Slams to her name but influenced how the modern game of women's tennis is played more than anyone. When you watch Venus at her best and then look at someone like Maria Sharapova for example, you can see how Venus game is the basis for not only the Russian's game but many other players.

There was a lot of hype around Serbians Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, the so called Serbian Sisters, but of the two only Ivanovic has won a Slam. Jankovic created the template for reaching #1 without a Slam. She played any and everywhere no matter the level of tournament. There were jokes that she would fly to far off places to pay $10k or $25k events in between main tour events in her never ending quest for points. I don't think she's ever physically recovered from that effort although she did try to beef up her strength and endurance with disastrous results. She can still beat players who aren't familiar with her style but has never won a Slam.

I'll get to Caroline Wozniacki in a minute. A direct descendant of Jelena Jankovic's quirky style is Agnieszka Radwanska. Her now you see it now you don't style used to drive players wild but now she only beats young guns or those who never quite reached the upper echelons of the sport. I feel that her chance to win a Slam has passed and that her efforts to improve her serve and aggressiveness came too late to make a difference for her. She came close to but never made the top spot.

Before I discuss the woman WTA CEO Stacey Allaster nick named "Sunshine" I have to throw in the disastrous effect that on court coaching has had on women's tennis. It's very hard for a player reliant on her coach running down from the stands to hold her hand and give her perspective on what's happening on the court to win a Slam. Keep in mind a Slam is run under ITF rules and wisely they have rejected on court coaching. In 2014 we saw Li Na win in Melbourne, Maria Sharapova win in Paris, Petra Kvitova win in London and Serena Williams in New York. This post will be a lot longer if we go into the coaching from the stands players rely on. Does everyone get coaching of some kind during a match? Of course. Have any of these women made on court coaching into an art form all it's own? No. Caroline Wozniacki and her father Victor Krason do the equivalent of a Vegas floor show with his dramatic visits to talk to his daughter while she dries off, hydrates, and stares into space. Like Radwanska and Ivanovic Wozniacki has added aggression and better shot making to her game and both are playing pretty good tennis. Will Wozniacki ever win a Slam and justify her former #1 ranking? It's possible. The draw would have to break her way for that to happen and that's not out of the realm of possibility.

But this post is about where the WTA goes from here. The short answer is that there is no easy answer.

We all know about the WTA moving almost all of its tournaments from Europe and the States to Asia. It's too early to talk about the success or failure of that yet. It's not too early to talk about the attempts of Asian promoters to either poach the Australian Open or add a 5th Slam/two week event in Asia.

Leslie Wilson Jr reporting on the recent ITF meeting in Dubai talked about the pitch the Asian Tennis Federation made.

The ATF President Anil Kumar Khanna made the following point:

“The ITF is not a financially successful body. Right now it is not making a surplus, at best it is making $500,000 [Dh1.83 million] a year and our development expenses have gone down significantly to what it was 10 years ago,” he said.

“So basically what the ATF is telling the ITF is that it must make a profit of $50 million, like the Grand Slams are making a profit of $100 million, at least for the sake of it’s 210 member nations, so that it can have worldwide development.

“This can be generated through its own Grand Slam-like tournament, a two-week event which can be called the ITF World Championship. Even if the ITF can make even $50 million, we will be happy.

“That money will not belong to one nation it will belong to 201 nations. It will be money well spent in Asia, in Africa, in Central America, in South America. Today we find tennis getting centred around only Europe making it is easier for Europe-based players to succeed.

“Asians on the other hand face logistical hurdles having to travel far, spend more and get little in return, should they lose.”

Mr. Khanna seems to be aware of the backlash the WTA is facing because of it's Asian focus and skillfully brings in the continents of Africa and South America as well as Central America as potential beneficiaries of a new ITF event in Asia. It's not clear to me that players from those continents or parts of hte world would benefit from a two week event in Asia but I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens. I don't see the Australian Open going away. It's worked too hard and spent too much money to update it's facility and shame the other Slams into upgrading thier plant as well to simply pack up and go away. But money talks and you know what walks. The WTA has already gone for Asian money and the security of government involvement in sports. The ATP hasn't and I feel that is the organizaiton Mr. Khanna is pitching to.

Meanwhile the WTA is doing it's best to pump up the rankings of Asian women by instituting special $125k tournaments geared specifically to the Asian market with rules that go against those in the WTA rulebook. There was a lot of conversation about Peng Shuai entering Nanchang in violation of WTA rules. Subsequent events will take place in Ningbo (October 27) and Taipei. One will take place in Limoges, France starting on November 3, the same time as the one in Taipei. While Mr. Khanna talks about the expense fo Asian players traveling overseas the same situation exists for non Asian players traveling to Asia.

At any rate the WTA is still populated by a majority of players from Europe and the States. And it's not even doing a very good job promoting the players it has. Petra Kvitova? She's won two Slams. Many would say "who"?
Simona Halep? She's been the hottest player on the tour but again many have no idea who she is. How will the WTA promote non Westerners?

Taking a look at the WTA top 20 we find the following:

[6] LI, NA CHN

The only player people who don't count tennis as part of their major sports obession would consider the next best is the young woman from Canada. Remember I'm talking about new faces in the sport not the established players. You would never know about the others unless you have someone in your life who lives and breathes tennis.

But what about the quality of the tennis being played you ask? Enough of the personalities and hype. How well are they playing?

Sadly not so well. There are players like Lucie Safarova who based on talent should be in the top ten but for some reason seem to lose the plot when the pressure is on. Tennis is played not only on the court but between the ears. If you can't think your way through a match and adjust to changes the player across the net is making in her game you end up losing matches you should've won. It is so frustrating to watch a women's match that starts out competitive and ends up with one, sometimes both players going on walkabout and the one who manages to bring herself back to the match ends up the winner while you, the fan, shake your head at the errorfest you've paid your hard earned money to see in person.

I blame a lot of this on oncourt coaching and the inability of up and comers, and some veterans to think through a match. On court coaching ensures that they don't have to. It's this that has diminished the quality of women's tennis. With low quality tennis - where Grand Slam matches are played at the same level as International's - why would fans pay to see the WTA product? They're not. And I think this is part of the reason Allaster and her organization are willing to take the hit and move almost their whole tour to Asia. What do they have to lose? Empty stadiums are the norm when it comes to women's tennis. Is there another Serena on the horizon? No. Are there good players around? Yes. Will they become exceptional players? That remains to be seen. Get rid of on court coaching. Stop making Juniors think they're stars when they haven't accomplished anything. There is no one size fits all in tennis and while Federations all have a preferred style a player should be able to create her own style within that framework. We don't need a new Serena or Venus. We don't need another marketing success based on looks and not on performance. We need a combination of the two, one that occurs naturally instead of a player being selected as The One to the detriment of other players who could use the help financially and with coaching.

Sadly, I don't think any of this is going to happen.

Li Na

There were press reports going back to the US Open that Li Na was going to retire due to injury. She'd been playing for a long time with kinesio tape on her knee but not once was the extent of her injury, and her pain, discussed in the Western press. The Chinese sports prsss on the other hand, where the imminent retirement was reported as fact, was accused of making shit up and the WTA pressed on with promoting her triumphant return to Wuhan to play in the tournament made possible by her success on the International stage.

Let's look at that success for a minute. Li Na played on the tour 15 years, much of that time under the supervision of the Chinese Tennis Federation. Li ended up in a battle with her Federation to keep her earnings and the right to choose coaches outside of their system. It was at the end of that fight that Li's game improved and she began to have success at larger tournaments. She was already in her late 20's by then though and now, at 32, she's had to call it quits due to injury. I doubt she's the type of player Federations want to cite as a role model to their juniors let alone their professionals.

Li is still the face of Asian tennis in spite of her battle with her Federation. Maybe I should qualify that and say she's the face of Asian women's tennis? She's shown what it takes to make it to the top level in her sport and her not being able to play anymore is a great loss. She will be making publicity appearances and hopefully she'll be able to talk to girls who want to be like her.

What is sad is that it's only within the last two years that we in the West got to know her not as an Asian player but as a woman with great wit and sparkle. Her peers knew her. We Western fans didn't. That wit and sparkle, the ability to laugh at herself and her husband was part of what made her a fan favorite.

You will be missed Na.

End Notes

In last weeks post on the ATP I mentioned that Spain's Davis Cup loss wasn't that big a deal since it was better to rebuild now than wait until all of their top players were unable to play well.

Well Thank You Carlos Moya. There was a lot of politics behind him becoming Spain's DC coach and it was thought that Spain would return to DC glory. Instead Moya has stepped aside saying that being Davis Cup coach was not what he expected it to be. Really? Well what did you think it was going to be like Carlos? You sitting on the bench while the stars of Spanish tennis romped over the opposition? That it wasn't going to be work?

At any rate someone else, who is willing to do the work, who is willing to do team building, will step in. Juan Carlos Ferrero? Who knows? Whoever it is will be better than Moya who was handed the job on a silver platter.

ETA: The RFET has chosen Gala León García as its new Davis Cup Captain. She is a former top 30 player, 40, and has been working as the sports director of the RFET. Link is in Spanish.

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