Bali event serves up good entertainment
, The Jakarta Post , Nusa Dua, Bali | Tue, 11/10/2009 12:39 PM | Sports
Cynics got their digs in before the inaugural Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions began. A new addition to the women's tennis tour calendar as an indoor year-end tournament held on the resort island, it was an unknown entity - and thus prime fodder to be picked apart.
Qualifiers were selected from the highest-ranked players who had won a designated tournament from the calendar year, but were not eligible for the Tour Championships in Doha or the Fed Cup final held the same week. Therein lay a problem, or two: The stars were assured of going to Doha (and Italians Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta to the Fed Cup), and it was difficult to determine who would make it to Bali until a few weeks before the event began.
In the blogosphere, some dubbed it a "Minnie Mouse" tournament,
allowing the sport's second-tier players to earn a fat bonus (the winner's check was US$200,000, a sizable amount but peanuts compared to the $1.5 million Serena Williams garnered in Doha).
Others griped that the tournament, in its previous incarnation as a Tier III outdoor hard-court event from 2001-2008, at least looked like it was held in Bali, and Indonesian players also got a look-in by receiving wildcards.
But when the tournament wrapped on Sunday, the criticism was tempered. A popular fan website asked members to compare Doha - weakened by retirements and injuries - and Bali, and many foreign observers, who watched via international broadcasts, chose the Indonesian tournament.
In an interview with The Jakarta Post during the tournament, new Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster said stars were important draws, but true fans enjoy good tennis, regardless of who is playing. At the end of the day, Bali served the fans well.
Bali was intended to be a showcase of top 20 players who didn't qualify for Doha. It did not turn out that way - the four top seeds were Marion Bartoli, ranked 12th, Samantha Stosur (13), Yanina Wickmayer (18) and Sabine Lisicki (25) - as tournament director Kevin Livesey acknowledged in a post-tournament evaluation Sunday night. But the play in the round-robin group matches was uniformly high (the only exception was Anabel Medina Garrigues, whose topspin game was unsuited to the ultrafast wood court).
The venue of the Bali International Convention Center turned out to be an excellent one. Did fans miss sitting in an outside arena under a baking sun? Doubt it. In fact, the relatively small 1,800-capacity of the center provided an unusual intimacy between players and fans who were clearly delighted to have the opportunity to watch a world-class tournament up close (unfortunately, National Tennis Association chairman Martina Wijaya was not among the spectators).
A good story, and a tennis tournament, needs interesting characters, a bit of drama and a hero to cheer for. Bali had them all. There was Kimiko Date-Krumm, the 39-year-old Japanese player, making a return to the Tour after a 12-year "hiatus"; up-and-coming Lisicki of Germany; and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, a fearless serve-and-volleyer whose game is a throwback to another era.
There was drama, although it had nothing to do with the appearance of Israeli Shahar Peer who, despite Indonesia's lack of diplomatic relations with Israel, was allowed to play with next to no fuss. Instead, 3rd seeded Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium was forced to withdraw after failing to comply with her country's doping regulations.
It was a shock, but the tournament went on. The hero was Rezai, the unfancied world number 44 with the pounding groundstrokes who was the revelation of the week. Although abbreviated by Bartoli's retirement, the final made for exciting viewing.
Rezai is a great ambassador for the sport. A French-born Muslim of Iranian descent, she gives her all on court, and is a smiling, attractive and polite young woman off it. Amid the ranks of towering players, the 1.65-meter Rezai showed this year she could hold her own with the best of them, including beating then world number one Dinara Safina.
The Bali tournament was not perfect; no first-time event ever is. But it was involving, displayed high-quality tennis and, most importantly, was entertaining to fans. They are the people who matter.
The writer is the three-time winner of the national tennis writing contest, held in conjunction with the Bali event.