SBJ/October 29 - November 4, 2001/Opinion

(Dis)order on the court, WTA style

The women's professional tennis tour stages its championship this week in Munich, Germany, and while several top players will be among the missing, no absence will be noted more than that of Monica Seles.

In what remains sports' most shocking incident of on-field violence, Seles was stabbed in the back during a court changeover during a 1993 tournament in Hamburg. When the offense was compounded by the man who did it receiving a relatively brief sentence in a psychiatric facility, she vowed she'd never again play in Germany, and hasn't.

The Women's Tennis Association knew that when it decided to move its season-ending blowout to Munich from its longtime home in New York's Madison Square Garden, but did it anyway. That the prize money will be better — $3 million this year against $2 million last — seems a poor reason for the group to ignore the feelings of one of its most accomplished and popular players. If the WTA doesn't respect its own, one wonders who should.

Much the same can be said about women's pro tennis generally. The tour has flowered competitively of late, with eight or 10 players capable of winning Grand Slam crowns instead of the three or four of previous eras. The glory of that blossoming, however, has been dimmed by an administration that either can't or won't confront issues that touch on the integrity of its enterprise.

True, some of those problems cut across the sport's governing lines. The faster game of recent years has increased injuries among men and women players alike, and as independent contractors they're pretty much free to determine their own availability. The rotten appearance-guarantee system, which applies to all save the most important tourneys, allows the stars to take their money with a minimum of running, although it should be said that the men are worse about that than the women. Rules changes that would streamline matches lose their way in a bureaucratic maze.

But events that surrounded one tournament this year both crystallized and isolated the WTA's failure to keep its house in order. Williams sisters Venus and Serena, its most brilliant and enigmatic performers, were to meet in the semifinals of a tournament last March in Indian Wells, Calif., but just minutes before the match was to begin, and with some 12,000 paying customers in their seats, Venus bowed out, pleading injury.

That same week, a story in the tabloid National Enquirer quoted Williams family intimates as saying that Richard Williams, the sisters' mythomaniacal father, had told them he'd ordered Serena to lose a 1999 Wimbledon contest with Venus. Allegations that Richard Williams called the shots when his daughters met already had been the public scuttlebutt in women's tennis circles.

Venus and Serena make no secret of their dislike of playing each other, and Venus had shown no sign of being hampered either before or immediately after her Indian Wells default, but her injury claim wasn't challenged officially. The WTA responded to the match-fixing story with a press release saying it had "seen no evidence" to support it, but never mentioned whether it had looked for any. Both matters remain unaddressed, as do the sisters' frequent tourney no-shows that rob the tour of its most attractive matchup.

The WTA could move toward righting things with the new CEO it's supposed to name this week. Bart McGuire, the former office holder, is a lawyer whose accomplishments were measured in the sponsorship and television deals he negotiated. His replacement needn't be a Judge Landis copy, but he or she should realize that buck-chasing should have its limits, and that the WTA could be tripped up by all the things it's swept under its rug.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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