Cup serves up excitement
By Gene Sapakoff (Contact)
The Post and Courier
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
When you get right down to the nitty-gritty green clay of Daniel Island, this week's Family Circle Cup tennis tournament still can be a grand success, despite another one-two punch of late withdrawals.
Perhaps anticipating the loss of a few originally committed stars — this year popular Venus Williams and top-rated Justine Henin — Family Circle Cup management took out an insurance policy.
Meet Maria Sharapova, the 20-year-old international megastar who already has three Grand Slam titles and endorsement deals worth as much as $20 million a year.
Shrewdly, this Sharapova commitment was not announced until a few weeks ago, allowing people who bought tickets early to the 35th annual tournament a pleasant surprise instead of the sour taste of "Sorry, no Maria." Her 2007 withdrawal hurt some Family Circle Cup fans as much as a backhand shot to the ribs.
And what timing.
Not only is the Russian-born, Florida-trained Sharapova coming off her first clay court victory — a straight-set conquest of Dominika Cibulkova on Sunday at Amelia Island — she turns 21 on Saturday.
"It's exciting that I could start the clay court season a little earlier than I have and be in a much better position than I was last year,
" Sharapova, the No. 4-ranked player in the world, said Monday after arriving on Daniel Island from Florida.
"It's always good to get a title under your belt and have on your resume. It's a good feeling and hopefully I'll improve."
Of course, commitment remains a relative term in Hollywood marriages and in Women's Tennis Association Tour stops. Family Circle Cup organizers and tennis enthusiasts learned as much last year when Serena Williams joined Sharapova to lead a disappointing wave of players who withdrew just before or very early in the tournament.
Paradoxically, Sharapova and Williams this year are here to save the week.
Problem: A wacky Family Circle Cup bracket arrangement has Sharapova potentially clashing with Williams in a quarterfinal match.
"There's a long way to go to that," Sharapova said.
Expect Williams, with Venus accompanying her, to soak up the Charleston love, win or lose. Both Williams sisters have done clinics and charity work during previous Family Circle Cup appearances and usually have the crowd advantage.
"I love Charleston. I have a lot of fans here and it's really cool here," said Serena Williams, ranked No. 9. "It's a great atmosphere. Everyone is so supportive here. Honestly, the people are so nice and so warm. It makes you want to come back every year."
Hopefully, for tournament credibility's sake, no more withdrawals. But there is only so much the Family Circle Cup folks can do with a demanding WTA Tour.
Tournaments are scheduled all over the globe and take a physical toll, stars play deep into draws and non-Grand Slam withdrawals remain too common.
But the total Family Circle Cup attendance last year was 91,899, off only slightly from 92,375 in 2006, the best year since the Family Circle Cup moved from Hilton Head for the 2001 tournament.
The turnstile record might fall this week if Sharapova or Serena sticks around through Sunday.