Dodge City

Saturday, October 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The end of the 10-month tennis year is supposed to be time for tying up loose ends, but there are so many of them flapping and snapping around that the WTA logo itself sometimes seems to be unraveling. 

Ironically, the only stability we have among the women as the WTA Championships spools out in Istanbul this week is the kind that diminishes the happenings in Turkey. Serena Williams has imposed almost stifling order on the WTA in a great year during which she won two Grand Slam tournaments (and a whopping eight other events). There may have been a “race” to Istanbul this year, but there’s no race now that we’re there. It’s like the city went dark at 8 PM on a Saturday night in the wild west.

Williams is so clearly the number one player that the Championships are, in regard to the year-end pecking order, a redundancy. Williams could lose every point she plays the rest of this tournament and she will still be the overwhelming year-end No. 1. And while Williams can barely see WTA No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in the rear-view mirror, she’s a definitive No. 2, even if it’s mainly because of Maria Sharapova’s absence due to injury.

But the calm state of the game is surrounded by a measure of chaos and controversy. The WTA is in Dodge City on a lively Saturday night these days, thanks to some recent, dumbfounding decisions and events that point toward a really insidious trend—the elevation of marketing, hype, and expansion over legitimacy and credibility. 

The most serious of these issues was the switcheroo we witnessed right before the Linz tournament got underway a few weeks ago in Austria. But there are other eyebrow-raising developments that we’ll look at first, and I won’t even get into the truly weird mixed signals the WTA is sending with marketing strategies that promote the women as “strong” athletes as well as “beautiful” people—in the most vulgar sense. Is there a greater example out there of trying to have it both ways?

One of the most discouraging end-of-year developments is the way the Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria (Oct. 29 - Nov. 3), has impacted the Fed Cup final (Nov. 2-3). We learned some days ago that Russia’s Elena Vesnina has chosen to play Sofia instead of the Fed Cup final, which will be hosted by that new Fed Cup powerhouse, Italy.

I don’t much blame Vesnina; Russia has many solid if few exceptional players to choose from (or so you’d think). Besides, Vesnina is a veteran who’s pulled a reasonable amount of Fed Cup duty for a nation so rich in talent. Vesnina is going where the money is, and that’s understandable. What is baffling is why the WTA continues with this charade of a tournament, and aggressively slots it in the same week as the Fed Cup.

The Fed Cup is a far more valuable franchise, and it has much more growth potential—especially in a world where the competition is no longer dominated by former “haves” like the United States and Australia.

I have nothing against the good people of Sofia, but this Tournament of Champions is a joke. It purports to be a playoff for winners of International Series events who did not make the Istanbul cut. An eight-player hybrid round-robin/knockout event, a full 25 percent of the places in the are taken up by wild cards—it’s like Wimbledon handing out 32 wild cards. How would you like to be one of the women who would have qualified for the event, were it not for the liberal wild card policy?

For the second year in a row, No. 118 Tsvetana Pironkova has received a wild card, along with Ana Ivanovic. The defending champion in Sofia is WTA No. 105 Nadia Petrova (who isn’t even in the field this year). I think the opportunity is a good thing, and in all honesty Pironkova did have a good run to justify the wild card last year, losing in the semis to Caroline Wozniacki. But it’s short-sighted to damage Fed Cup with this event, and ridiculous that the WTA doles out ranking points for those lucky—or pretty—enough to get a slot in it.

On the other hand, Ivanovic certainly deserves a break after what happened in Linz. She was seeded No. 2 and the draw was already made when the tournament gave a last-minute wild card to Angelique Kerber (thanks to a slot that opened up when a back injury led top-seeded Petra Kvitova to withdraw). This presented Kerber with an 11th hour opportunity to beat out Wozniacki for the eighth and final spot in the line-up for the year-end championships in Istanbul.  

But because of the WTA rules (only “lucky losers” from qualifying can replace main-draw withdrawals), the tournament needed to retrieve one of the wild cards it had already doled out in order to sneak in Kerber. So it convinced local talent (and WTA No. 337) Lisa-Marie Moser to give up her wild card for what was ultimately described as “personal reasons.” Is getting a big fat check from a tournament director sufficiently “personal?” Just asking.

Most of you know what happened next: Linz re-arranged the seedings and the draw, seeding wild card Kerber No. 1 but putting her in the bottom half of the draw. No. 2 seed Sloane Stephens took the top spot in the draw (usually reserved for the top seed). Because Kerber took the place of Ivanovic, the deposed one was moved up to No. 3 (top half) and predictably ended up losing in the final to. . . Kerber. And thus, Kerber beat out Wozniacki for a place in the WTA Championships.

Technically, no WTA rules were broken (wink, wink). The entire affair hinged on Moser giving up her wild card, and who wouldn’t cave to the kind of pressure a tournament director, and perhaps even a federation, can bring to bear on a player? One thing we know for sure: Had Moser kept her wild card, it would be the last she ever was offered in Linz—and perhaps anywhere.

These maneuverings certainly left some players with bitter feelings. Early in the bizarre game of switcheroo, the ordinarily mild-mannered and modest Ivanovic tweeted, “One of those things when you realize you’re powerless. . . no matter what they say!” And Wozniacki also weighed in, with greater force and determination: “I do not understand that you can suddenly change the draw and allocate of wild cards that way,” she told Ekstra Bladet. “I wrote to Stacey (Allaster, WTA chairman and CEO), but I have not got a proper answer.”

I’m left wondering just what would be the proper answer to the woman who lost her place in Istanbul because of the transparent jiggering of the rules? I’m not sure, but I think it will have dollar signs attached. There’s a reason players have agents, and why agents have law degrees.

One thing we know for sure is that Wozniacki didn’t ask for a wild card into Sofia, but what the heck, maybe Pironkova will offer to turn hers in, to make room for a new top seed. Perhaps an offer of just that kind is winging its way to Wozniacki as I write this, courtesy of Allaster. You know, a make-up gift.

Whatever happens, it’s sure been a complicated—and heavily compromised—month for the WTA. It’s not so much that the realities that are distasteful. Tournaments are good things, at least when they’re not exhibitions in disguise; and Linz was certainly better off with Kerber than a local wild card, except that they’d made the draw and the entries were closed.  

Perhaps the recent weeks were best summed up by the sight of Kerber throwing in the towel for the last few games of her match with Serena earlier this week in Istanbul. Sometimes you just want to get the hail out of Dodge.

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