It's not often that you hear professional athletes tell the press how surprised and impressed they are that so many people have come out to watch them. But you could kind of understand why Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova did just that Tuesday after losing their opening round-robin matches at the WTA Championships in Istanbul. Although this is one of the most lucrative tennis events in history, and a season-ending championship with a long pedigree, the tournament has been a tough sell to local fans in recent years.
By the late 1990s in Madison Square Garden, there were swathes of empty seats for the early rounds at what was then known as the Chase Championships. It only worsened when the tournament moved to the Staples Center in Los Angeles; even during the semifinals on the weekend, the place felt like an echo chamber. Then it was on to Madrid, and while interest did pick up there, it virtually impossible tough to tell on TV because the boxes around the court remained mostly unfilled. Finally, the women made their year-end home in the unlikely city of Doha, where the stands were half-full (or half-empty, depending on your point of view) most of the time, and the fans were primarily tourists and expatriates.
When Istanbul was announced as the location for the 2011 version of the event, there wasn't much reason to think that would change. The city has hosted a women's tournament, but it isn't known as a tennis hotbed. But at 5 p.m. local time Tuesday, there were 10,000 people in their seats ready for the first round-robin match between Zvonareva and Petra Kvitova. And something close to the same number were there six hours later, when Sam Stosur closed a long evening of tennis by defeating Sharapova. This wasn't a Western-dominated crowd, like those in Doha and, from their appreciative, civilized demeanor, they seemed to know the game.
Granted, tickets were cheap, which helped. But the tournament has also improved its presentation. The event has taken a page from the very successful men's year-end tournament in London by adopting the same theater-style lighting that illuminates the court and leaves the crowd largely in the dark -- it's the kind of dramatic, anticipatory atmosphere you expect from major international sporting event. The one misstep is the bright green playing surface. It resembles, not surprisingly, the logo color of a major sponsor, the Swedish cosmetic company Oriflame; more important, it makes it harder than it should be for spectators, particularly on TV, to pick up the ball.
But for a tournament that has often lacked spectators in the first place, that's a problem you can live with.