It hasn't been easy for fans of Venus Williams these days. The popular American has played just three tournaments this season, but to her supporters, it must feel like she's played even less. Two of Venus' best wins -- a three-set upset of Petra Kvitova in just her second match of the season, and a gutsy, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (6) triumph over Simona Halep -- were not broadcast anywhere. The only people who saw those matches were those in attendance -- not at obscure, small tournaments, but in Miami and Madrid, two of the biggest events outside of the Grand Slams.
Venus' fans have also missed some shortcomings, like her 6-4, 6-1 loss to Angelique Kerber on Monday. That was a tough result to take, but perhaps of similar disappointment was the fact that a men's match between Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Marcos Baghdatis was being shown on television at the same time. I could feel the frustration as I read the many scathing tweets on my feed.
This was not the only instance where the men's game has had greater exposure than the women's, and it should be said that both tours' matches were unavailable during the opening days of Miami. But that's cold comfort to passionate WTA fans, particularly during a year in which women's tennis has made a quantum leap in quality. If the product improves and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound (aside from criticisms like this one)?
This problem is magnified with the rise of the combined event -- Miami and Madrid are two such examples -- where men's and women's tournaments are held at the same venue on the same week. Pitted side-by-side against the ATP, the WTA sometimes comes off as a minor league. There's the broadcast issue, but there are other differences, like on-court coaching, which might be tolerable if it was permitted across tennis. The men don't have that option, however, which makes the women look like they are incapable of figuring out the opponent or situation on their own. It's too bad the WTA makes sure we see these exchanges, which range from cringe-worthy (coach imploring, player silent) to boring (two minutes' worth of cliches). Rarely are they insightful.
Another strike against the WTA, through no fault of its own, is the traditional combined-event schedule, in which the men's final comes after the women's. There's no reason it has to -- consider the changes made to night matches at the U.S. Open -- but it's almost always been that way. Because of that, the ultimate takeaway is the men's tournament is the last thing fans saw. The WTA should try and bargain for the concluding match when it has leverage, like the new combined event to be held in Rio de Janeiro. I think it would make a difference and could signal something bigger.
These criticisms are meant to be constructive -- women's tennis is in the best shape it's been in some time, but there's lots of room for growth. And it's not as if men's tennis is slowing down. To keep up with the Djokovics, the WTA must make the most of its recent upturn. That should have started by ensuring fans could watch a match between the current Wimbledon champion and a five-time Wimbledon winner.