Monday, March 12, 2012
Star security backfiring on WTA?
It's bad enough that Caroline Wozniacki can't seem to win a Grand Slam event. Now it appears that she won't even get a chance to win one of those relatively underwhelming premier 700 tournaments, even though she's the defending champion at the one she has in mind -- Charleston.
It's all because of the byzantine commitment demands of the WTA, a template the organization embraced over the years in an effort to grow the game and provide once-disgruntled tournament directors with a measure of what might be called "star security" in an era when top players seemed less than fully committed to the week-in, week-out grind of the tour.
You can trace a lot of the thinking behind the WTA's pact with the top players to the former CEO of the tour, Larry Scott. An excellent negotiator, he promised the WTA stars bigger prize-money figures and a longer offseason -- all he wanted in return was their agreement to play a reasonably full schedule and distribute the responsibility to support the lesser events more or less equally among themselves.
Thus, the WTA rules came to stipulate that a top-10 player must compete at all four Grand Slams if able, the WTA year-end Championships (in the event any given player is among the top eight who qualify), four "premier mandatory" tournaments (these include the big "combined" events where the women play alongside the men, like they're doing now at Indian Wells), four slightly less resonant Premier 5 events and two Premier 700 events (like Charleston) -- for a grand total of 15 mandatory events.
Wozniacki's problem is that the rules also stipulate that only two of the top six players can play in those Premier 700 events. Basically, the rule tries to keep promoters of such low-octane events (the "700" refers to the prize-money at those events, which is in the $700,000 range) from paying huge under-the-table appearance fees to beef up the hype -- and gate.
Originally, Wozniacki planned to skip Charleston (it's never been on her published schedule), so I'm assuming that she was hoping to get in via a wild card. But apparently No. 2 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Samantha Stosur and even Agnieszka Radwanska, who wasn't in the top six when she made her schedule but is now No. 5, beat her to the signup desk.
The change-of-heart must have been dictated by the downward turn in Wozniacki's fortunes. At the end of 2011, Wozniacki barely staved off Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka in the battle for the year-end top ranking, but the roof quickly and inevitably fell in at the first Grand Slam event of this year. Azarenka won the Australian Open and, seemingly overnight, Wozniacki slipped to No. 4 (behind new No. 1 Azarenka, Sharapova and Kvitova).
Wozniacki has always been a rankings-points chaser; she secured that No. 1 ranking and kept it so long partly because she was willing to do what major rivals wouldn't -- or couldn't -- accomplish. She showed up week-in, week-out and played her heart out (22 events in the fairly typical year of 2011).
Of course, that helps explain how she became the only player of either sex in the history of the official computer rankings to be ranked the year-end No. 1 two years running while still hoping to win her first Grand Slam title.
The irony here is towering: If all the players were as diligent and durable as Wozniacki, there would be no need for the rules that now have her boxed into a corner.
Sharapova reportedly has pulled out of Charleston, so perhaps Wozniacki might still get in (using the argument that when Radwanska entered Charleston, she was outside the top 6). The WTA ought to do everything in its power -- short of breaking its own rules -- to see that Wozniacki makes the Charleston draw.
You have to wonder if things aren't just a wee bit overmanaged when the rules prevent a champion from defending a title she earned fair and square.