Women's Look Forward: Week of November 3
Posted on 11/2/2003 at 7:49 PM
Women's Look Forward: Los Angeles Championships, Pattaya City
And now for something completely different.
The WTA's year-end championships has always been unlike any other event. For many years, it had a best-of-five final. Even when this was abolished after the 1998 Championships (by vote of the players, who hated it, but the truth was, few of those best-of-five finals were particularly good; the women don't practice best-of-five matches), it still had the only 16-woman field in the world, and it was the only event where players might not know until the day before the tournament if they would get in.
As long as the tournament was held in New York, that was distinction enough. But the tournament was forced to move after the 2000 Championships, for reasons having less to do with attendance than with a desire to use the facility for other purposes. The Championships moved to Munich, but it was a very inopportune move. German tennis was in decline, Europe's most popular player (Martina Hingis) was missing, and there just wasn't much build-up; Serena Williams won the one and only Munich Championships, and the tournament was forced once again to seek a home.
In 2002, it landed in Los Angeles -- only to find the problems waiting for it. With even less time to promote than Munich had had, and with ticket prices many local fans called unacceptable, not even the presence of the Williams Sisters could fill the seats in California. It was time for radical surgery.
And so, for the first time, the WTA championships is not merely richer than any other tournament, tougher than any other tournament, with a more select field than any other tournament, it's a completely different type of tournament: It's an eight-woman round robin instead of a single-elimination event such as we see at all other WTA tournaments. (In singles, anyway; the doubles is single-elimination, with only four teams in the field. Rather an odd combination.) Reducing the field also allows the tournament to present a truly outlandish winner's check -- the largest in women's tennis, not that the winner here will need the cash.
This has its ironic points. It's an indoor tournament -- but it's full of outdoor hardcourt specialists. Top seed Kim Clijsters had two indoor titles coming in (Filderstadt and Luxembourg) -- but four hardcourt titles (Sydney, Indian Wells, Stanford, Los Angeles). #2 Justine Henin-Hardenne had one indoor title (Zurich) -- but four hardcourt titles (Dubai, San Diego, Canadian Open, U. S. Open). Serena Williams, who would have been the #3 seed here, had one weak indoor title (Paris) but two big outdoor hardcourt wins (Australian Open, Miami). Jennifer Capriati, seeded #3 in the absence of Serena and Lindsay Davenport, won her only title of this year (New Haven) on hardcourts, and also had her only title of 2002 (Australian Open) on outdoor hardcourts. Going into Philadelphia, #4 seed Amelie Mauresmo had no hardcourt titles -- but she didn't have any indoor titles either at the time she qualified, though she's now added Philadelphia. Elena Dementieva had three titles this year -- one on clay (Amelia Island), two on hardcourts (Bali, Shanghai), none indoors. Anastasia Myskina is the only player with indoor title abundance (she won Leipzig and Moscow) -- but her first title this year was Doha, on hardcourts. Ai Sugiyama won her first title of the year on hardcourts at Scottsdale. Chanda Rubin's title was on grass. It's a funny situation: The Tour's one remaining true indoor specialist, Magdalena Maleeva, isn't going to play the biggest indoor event there is.
Earlier this year, when it looked as if the field was going to be something like Williams-Williams-Clijsters-Capriati-Davenport-Dokic, it appeared this would be a really boring event for connoisseurs -- all power baseliners, all the time. Happily, it didn't turn out that way. Oh, there is a definite shortage of serve-and-volleyers (if the author could petition the tennis gods for anything here, other than a return to a 16-draw field so we could see more different players, it would be to play on the fastest possible carpet rather than indoor hardcourt) -- but there is genuine variety. Justine Henin-Hardenne of course has The Backhand -- but Amelie Mauresmo's one-hander is almost as good. Top seed Clijsters has a lot of power, but her speed is even more important to her game. Ai Sugiyama doesn't bring any power to the court; she wins with footwork and tenacity and finding flaws. Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva on paper seem to be much the same -- good groundstrokes, good wheels, baseliners, serves not all they would like them to be -- but watching them shows a distinct difference in approaches (Dementieva seems to be working her head off, Myskina seems do be doing it all utterly naturally), and a desire (even if they don't always live up to it) to go beyond the raw power game. Indeed, the only pure power merchants expected to play were Capriati and Venus, and Venus is now out, replaced by Chanda Rubin.
We can't really preview the draw; there isn't one in a Round Robin field. But with the lowest-ranked player here being Ai Sugiyama (ranked #11 and looking to hit the Top Ten), the only way there will be any easy matches is if there are further injuries.
Against the glamor that is the championships, Pattaya City -- a lowly Tier V -- can't do much to compete. This is especially true since the Asian hardcourt season has been truncated somewhat. In 2002, there were four fall Asian events prior to Pattaya, and a fifth (Surabaya) had initially been scheduled for the week before, though it was cancelled. This year, there were only three Asian events, and the last, the Japan Open, five weeks before Pattaya.
As of press time, the draw for Pattaya was not yet available. The tournament has been advertising the presence of Anna Kournikova -- but she isn't playing, she's just been imported as some sort of symbolic presence. Tamarine Tanasugarn will be the main reason for fans to actually visit the tennis court. If there are any spectacularly interesting things in the draw, we will of course let you know.
The Rankings. This week is going to be an interesting test for the WTA, because they're running round robin rankings for the first time -- and they aren't doing it the ATP way, with points granted directly for wins. Points are based on standings, and of course there are quality points. Do the rules cover every possible contingency? Don't ask us; we're still trying to figure out how to record this in our database.
We do know that the Championships is big -- the biggest event on the calendar except the Slams. That automatically hurts the several players who played last year and aren't back this year -- in draw order: Serena Williams, who made the semifinal; Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, who lost first round; Jelena Dokic, who made the quarterfinal; Silvia Farina Elia, who lost first round; Magdalena Maleeva, who made the quarterfinal; Daniela Hantuchova, who lost first round; Monica Seles, who made the quarterfinal; Lindsay Davenport, who lost first round; and Patty Schnyder, who lost first round. (We note with interest that the only players to play this year who didn't play last year are Amelie Mauresmo, who qualified but was hurt last year, and Ai Sugiyama, who is in only because Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport are out. Had we had full fields at both last year's event and this, we would not have seen any new players.)
That translates into not much change for the first round losers -- Dokic, e.g., would fall past Paola Suarez, who should move up to #14. It's more serious for the players who matches (Serena, Seles, Maleeva). Serena is safe at #3, but Maleeva is looking at a ranking around #30, and Seles will fall far below the Top 50. She will have an injury ranking, of course, but you don't get seeded based on an injury ranking. The WTA might step in and give her a protected ranking; she meets the criteria. But they've been inconsistent about this in the past.
But the players who are still in the Championships could see much greater movement -- including at the #1 ranking. Kim Clijsters has a small lead in that department right now -- but of course she's defending champion. And she's actually behind Justine Henin-Hardenne in the Race, and in safe points. What it comes down to is, Clijsters must win the Championships, and Henin-Hardenne must fall in the Round Robin, or Henin-Hardenne will be the year-end #1.
We noted that Serena's #3 ranking is not in danger. Below that, though, things get wild. Lindsay Davenport is #4 in both Race and rankings, and her lead over Amelie Mauresmo and Jennifer Capriati is substantial. But this is a big enough event that Mauresmo could perhaps overtake Davenport by reaching the semifinal, and is sure to pass her if she reaches the final; Capriati could pass Davenport by winning. So could Anastasia Myskina, and even Elena Dementieva. There is going to be a free-for-all for the #4 spot.
There is also going to be an interesting contest for #10. Very interesting indeed, in fact, because Venus Williams is under the gun. There had been speculation, now confirmed, that she wouldn't play. She's already down to #7, her lowest rank since April 1999. And, with semifinalist points to defend and a #10 standing in the Race, failure to play would mean that she can go nowhere except down. In fact, with Venus out and Chanda Rubin in her place, Venus is guaranteed -- note that word, guaranteed -- to fall behind Rubin, as well as Myskina and Dementieva, which would put her at #10. And Ai Sugiyama could pass her with, it appears, just one win -- so Venus faces a real and genuine threat of ending the year at #11. And even if she stays #10 this year, she has all her points early next year. The only way she can improve her total at the Australian Open is to win it (which means eating into sister Serena's total), and she has the Antwerp title just a few weeks later. She has no margin for error at all in the first part of next year.
A costly withdrawal.
The other player with the most on the line is Pattaya City 2002 champion Angelique Widjaja, who seems to be brilliant in small far eastern tournaments and quite mortal elsewhere. We'll have to see which Widjaja arrives in Thailand.