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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Tennis without the Williamses, for better and worse

Every year since they were booed so heavily in 2001, we've wondered whether the Williams sisters will return to Indian Wells. It had seemed to be a dead issue until the tour's new Roadmap 2009 was announced. In it, the event had been made into a mandatory stop for all qualified women players. Would the Williamses bow to this and end their boycott?

The answer, which came without much discussion, has been a definitive no. WTA chief Larry Scott seems prepared to throw in the towel. He's allowed Venus and Serena, his biggest meal tickets, to avoid any punishment.

So forget it. Again. What's been interesting about Indian Wells these last few years is that it has given us a glimpse of what women's tennis would be like without the sisters. On the one hand, it's not a thrilling sight. This is the best-attended U.S. tennis event outside of Flushing Meadows, and the tour is completely lacking in star power -- it doesn't help that Maria Sharapova is injured and not playing singles. This doesn't kill attendance, because the men have the big names right now to make up for it, but it hurts TV ratings in the U.S., where the Williamses still reign supreme.

On the other hand, their absence isn't a problem for many serious fans, people who already know all about the Williamses and would rather watch an up-and-comer like Victoria Azarenka or get the first look at a brand-new talent like 15-year-old Croat Ajla Tomljanovic. As for casual fans, Indian Wells is a place where fresh and appealing faces are given a chance to build a relationship with them. Daniela Hantuchova, a two-time winner in the desert, and Ana Ivanovic, the defending champion, have become fan favorites. This is not necessarily bad for the game in the long run. The Williamses are going strong now, but they're pushing 30 and will have to call it quits someday. The more people see of Ivanovic now, the more they'll come back to her later.

The Williamses are almost never mentioned on the grounds at Indian Wells. This is in part because nobody expects them to be there, so all discussions about that fact are pointless. But it's also because, I believe, the spectators who spend the time and money to attend tournaments and who watch regularly on TV are attached to the sport, not the individual. Tennis fans love their favorite players and identify with them deeply, and that includes the Williamses. But they also love to watch tennis -- an individual sport made up of an infinite variety of personalities -- because it always gives them new players that they can identify with and root for passionately. There are plenty of those players out in Indian Wells right now.