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Friday, October 12, 2012
Let's make it an exhibition

The other day, I speculated in print about who might get the two wild cards in the eight-player field of the upcoming WTA "Tournament of Champions" in Sofia, Bulgaria, unaware that the berths already had been doled out.

Francesca Schiavone was snubbed for the Tournament of Champions.

My bad for missing that not-so-critical nrelease. Their bad, I think, on a few other counts.

I had guessed that the recipients might be Maria Kirilenko and perhaps Francesca Schiavone. According to the WTA's "Race to Sofia" criteria tracking system, Schiavone -- a former top-10 player and French Open champion -- is currently just outside the top six who get direct acceptances based on ranking and the basic qualifying criteria of having won an International Series tournament.

The top player -- and potential top seed -- is WTA No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki, who won at Seoul. The player in sixth place is Hsieh Su-Wei, who won two International Series events (Kuala Lumpur and Guangzhou) and is ranked No. 31 -- two spots higher than Schiavone, who won the International event at Strasbourg.

Kirilenko has had an excellent year, hitting her career-high ranking of No. 12 a little more than a month ago (she's No. 16 in the latest rankings). But the Russian woman hasn't won a singles event this year, and this tournament is supposed to be for winners of International Series events. Wouldn't it be appropriate to take that into consideration when handing out the wild cards?

I was right on Kirilenko; she's in. But the other card went to WTA No. 44 Tsvetana Pironkova. A former Wimbledon semifinalist, Pironkova is from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Even as we speak, she's probably thanking her lucky stars that just this year, the tournament moved from Bali To Bulgaria.

I can understand the appeal of giving a wild card to a local attraction; even the mighty Grand Slams do this, often with humiliating results. But Pironkova hasn't won a tournament of any kind this year, either. So that would appear to leave Schiavone out in the cold, unless she makes a push in these final weeks and noses past one or more of the women who have won International titles and currently rank ahead of her.

At about this time your eyes might be glazing over and you may be thinking, "Yeah, but who cares?"

That's a very good question.

While I understand the desire to have as many tournaments as possible, and the value they create, I keep wondering, what's the point of having a year-end championship --- after the official year-end (WTA) championships?

The top eight women will slug it out in Istanbul in a round-robin event that has (on both tours) traditionally been promoted as the grand finale of the year. But now we have Sofia, a supposedly legitimate tour event that dispenses ranking points as well as prize money.

Just how credible is Sofia?

Consider this: If the Grand Slams awarded the same percentage of wild cards (25 percent) as the Tournament of Champions, there would be more than 30 doled out before Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It's an absurd percentage.

And if the Tournament of Champions' raison d'etre is to determine a champ among winners of Internatonal Series events, why wasn't at least one wild card set aside for a player (such as Schiavone) who may have met the criteria, but is ranked below the six direct entries?

Farce is OK, but it shouldn't ever bear the patina of authenticity or credibility. The Tournament of Champions is a woeful hodgepodge that damages the credibility of the WTA and its ranking system. It ought to be, at best, an exhibition.