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Nov 5th, 2003, 06:03 AM
Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne highlight season-ending event
By Douglas Robson, special for USA TODAY
Can a budding Belgian rivalry, the battle for No. 1 and a middle-aged legend put luster into this week's season-ending Bank of America WTA Tour Championships?

No. 2 Justine Henin-Hardenne, left, and No. 1 Kim Clijsters will vie to be the top-ranked woman in the world.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Organizers of the $3 million event, in its second year in Los Angeles, are banking on it, especially after last year's disappointing attendance.

But the eight-player, round-robin tournament kicks off Wednesday at downtown L.A.'s Staples Center with a number of gaping holes, including:

• No Serena and Venus Williams, both of whom are recovering from injuries and the death of their elder half-sister.

• No Lindsay Davenport, a Southern California native and crowd favorite, who is recovering from foot surgery.

• No Monica Seles, another popular American veteran sidelined with a foot ailment.

Instead, organizers are counting on No. 1 Kim Clijsters and No. 2 Justine Henin-Hardenne, who are locked in a tight race to finish the year on top of the rankings, to draw fans. It is only the third time in the last 10 years the race for No. 1 will come down to the final tournament.

Organizers also expect ageless Martina Navratilova to reel in supporters. The 47-year-old Czech-born American is the oldest player in history to qualify for the year-ending championships. She is competing with 18-year-old Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the four-team doubles competition. (Related item: WTA Championships history, look at this year's field)

"Part of the buzz is out with the three big injuries to Serena, Venus and Lindsay. But women's tennis has been without the Williams sisters since July, and we've seen some pretty exciting tennis," says former pro and TV analyst Pam Shriver. "It's time for a U.S. audience to accept that there are times when foreigners will be at the top of the game, and they need to embrace them."

Last year the event, which was hastily relocated to L.A. after struggling in Germany, failed to take off. Spotty, last-minute marketing contributed to embarrassingly poor turnouts for several daytime sessions at the cavernous, 20,000-seat indoor arena, damaging the image of the WTA Tour's showcase event.

"One of the criticisms was that even the Southern California tennis crowd didn't know about it," admitted WTA CEO Larry Scott, who took over the tour's top executive spot in April and has made boosting the championships a high priority.

To that end, the WTA changed the format from a 16-player elimination tournament to a round-robin format, ensuring that the top players will be in action at least three times.

It also eliminated daytime sessions on weekdays, raised prize money — the singles winner will pocket $1,000,030, a nod to the 30th anniversary of the women's tour and the biggest payday in the history of women's professional sports — and worked closely with co-promoters AEG, which owns the Staples Center, and management company Octagon.

If ticket sales are any indication, the event is on firmer footing. About 75%, roughly 58,000 tickets, for all six sessions have been distributed, compared with just under 52,000 for all of last year, according to AEG.

AEG and Octagon have spent $1 million on a concentrated marketing and grassroots outreach effort, including TV, radio, print ads and visits to local tennis clubs, according to Michael Roth, an AEG spokesman.

Other tweaks, such as new curtaining to make the arena feel more intimate and the creation of a "tennis village" on a side street will foster a more traditional tennis atmosphere.

But beyond the Belgians and ever-popular Jennifer Capriati, will fans show up to see the likes of relative no-names such as Amelie Mauresmo, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Ai Sugiyama and Chanda Rubin?

Recent history also suggests U.S. audiences have not adjusted willingly to the vacuum created by the Williams sisters' hiatus. U.S. television ratings were down about 50% for the U.S. Open final between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne (won by Henin-Hardenne) compared to the year before, when Venus and Serena Williams squared off.

"It's our job to follow the sport and create story lines, so when you get to November and you know who people are," said Dave Nagle, a spokesman for ESPN2, which will televise 16 hours from L.A., including next Monday night's final opposite ABC's Monday Night Football.

Trish101
Nov 5th, 2003, 06:24 AM
they only care about american girls...so Jennifer is really the main reason the crowds coming...its sad, but true. GO JEN!