Mornin' all. For those of you might be interested, Rafael Nadal is blogging for Tennis.com, for as long as he's in the Miami draw. Also, the Talk About Tennis website has posted some of my thoughts on tennis, and how I got into the game, in a Q an A interview conducted via emial. You can read it here.
This will by your forum for discussing the events of the day - or yesterday - at the Sony Ericsson Open. As I mentioned yesterday, we had one of our semi-annual sit-downs with Larry Scott, CEO of the WTA Tour, at Indian Wells last week. I scribbled a few notes on what seemed to be the salient items of interest:
1 - The WTA's Roadmap 2009 calls for 20 "Premium" events, which will be broken down in a way that is bound to cause more confusion than it alleviates. I don't want to start this report on a bum note, but it seems to me that the the Tier I, II, etc. designations, while not especially sexy, was relatively clear and self-explanatory. I wish they would have stayed with that model, but this is a done deal.
The top four events will be called the "Premium Mandatory" tournaments, and will be held at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing, each of which will feature play over two weekends (and $4.5 million prize money). The next level down will consist of Premium events in an International Series aggregate.
One intriguing, bold experiment will be a separate International Series championships, to be held in Bali after the WTA Championships in Doha. It will feature the top performers in the International Series events who did not also qualify for, to borrow an analogy, the Big Dance. It reminds me of those baffling European soccer tournaments, like the Euro-African Cup Runner-Up Cup etc. But given that tennis, unlike soccer, is not awash in those "second tier" championships, I like the idea.
BTW, isn't it funny how names (like International Series) and formats migrate between the two tours, constantly tweaked and re-defined? Somebody really needs to sit down, think these things through, and come up with the equivalent of franchise/brand names that they can stick with for years, preferably decades. Isn't that the grail of branding? Masters and Tier I weren't a bad start, why not agree to keep building on that foundation? As I've written before, the NFL didn't keep changing the name "Super Bowl", or "American Football Conference", dated as the latter may sound.
2 - On the on-court coaching issue, Scott said: "It is an ongoing experiment." It's funny, it seems that this "experiment" is getting to rank right up there with Democracy in experimental longevity. There's a reason for this: Television really, really likes the idea, but the tour is torn apart by it. "We've kept putting off making a final call on abandoning or keeping it because there's still no unanimity of opinion," Scott admitted.
I understand the needs of the networks but still don't like on-court coaching. The most defensible argument for institutionalizing it on the tour is, as Scott points out, that coaching happens, and the tour looks just as bad failing to enforce anti-coaching regulations as it does for keeping alive this neither fish nor fowl trial run. Scott was frank on this issue: "If it weren't for television, we wouldn't be doing it, and you have to consider the trend. Most sports have been giving viewers more and more access to coaches, and coaching. It's another dimension of the game in which people are interested."
3 - There will be no "Williams Rule" when it comes to the Premium Mandatory event at Indian Wells, which the Williams sisters have been boycotting because of an unpleasant incident that occurred there in 2001. This means that Venus and Serena will stand to be suspended and fined, or both, if they continue to boycott Indian Wells when the PM format and its rules kick in.
This is a horrible, unique problem that is going to generate far more heat in the media and tennis forums (I urge you all not to re-fight past battles on this front here; keep your powder dry for the day when - and if - it blows up in a more newsworthy way) than it ought at this stage in history. This is a hump that the tours, the media, the fans and the sisters really must get over - one way or the other. Let's all make a separate peace, however we feel.
We have yet to see the rules, and the degree of enforcement, that will come bundled with those $4.5 million PM events. As of now, the thinking is that players will risk suspension for simply skipping PM events (a la Justine Henin and Indian Wells); they will surely get a zero-pointer in the rankings, and they will surely lose bonus-pool money.
The WTA also seems poised to insist that if a player misses a PM event for whatever reason, (as would be the case for Maria Sharapova presently, because she pulled out of the current SE Open with sore shoulder), she will still be obliged to show up on site to perform various media and tournament related duties. If she doesn't, she'll face fines, in addition to other sanctions.
I asked Scott if this will hold even if a player pulled out with injury, and he said it would. "There are too many cases in tennis history where a doctor's note got produced," Scott admitted. "And that can't be the equivalent of an automatic pass." I assume that there will be some wiggle-room for players who are, unlike Sharapova this week, somewhere on the arc of surgery or otherwise significantly debilitated. All the disciplinary mechanisms mentioned in this item are still being negotiated. It will be interesting to see how strict - or lax - the final, officially adopted versions will be. One hedge against loopholes: promoters who are putting up PM-level money are going to want guarantees.
Other tidbits: The trend toward two-weekend tournaments is picking up, and it looks more and more like the Monday start is an idea whose time has passed - for everyone. Indian Wells drew 21,000 fans to one of its first-weekend sessions for the best reason of all - tennis fans really like having a cornucopia of matches to check-out. Here's my rule-of-thumb for those who would attend tennis tournaments live: Go to finals weekend to be seen, go to the early rounds to see.
Also, the WTA currently has a dozen promoters/cities lined up and salivating to get hold of a WTA event. The game, at an international level, is in great shape, at least as far as the pro tournament games goes.
A postscript: I've criticized Scott frequently in the past, and I had one of those moments on Monday that really makes a journalist think twice about how he approaches his work, and the people he covers. Scott was on my flight from Palm Springs to Dallas, along with his wife and three children. They were traveling in economy, and Scott was wearing khakis and a polo shirt. I was introduced to his wife and children (and a cute, lively bunch they were) and had a pleasant few minutes chatting with them. This was a very different Larry Scott from the all-business, hardball negotiator I'm accustomed to covering, and I realized the value of always remembering that all of us are a little different from the way we may appear in a professional context. We almost always look better.
Enjoy the tennis! I'm off to game-rich Andes, and I'll be testing out my new DSL set-up over the weekend.