Posted on Mon, Jul. 12, 2004_krdDartInc++;document.write('');http://[img]http://ad.doubleclick.ne...465?[/img]
Just 2 big names in field, but Bank of the West content
By Darren Sabedra
The Bank of the West Classic will have a familiar look at the top this week. After skipping the event last year, Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport are back.
After that, however, the marquee is quite bare.
There is no Serena Williams. No Kim Clijsters, the defending champion. No Justine Henin-Hardenne, the world's top-ranked player. No Jennifer Capriati. And there is no Maria Sharapova, the Russian teenager who burst onto the scene after her victory over Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final nine days ago.
When the Bank of the West starts today at Stanford's Taube Family Tennis Stadium, it will have only two big names in the 28-player field. Blame it on injuries, illness, the Olympics and even the Women's Tennis Association rule book.
While the tour got a huge shot in the arm from Sharapova's newfound stardom, the year's other big story, the health of the tour's top players, has created a ripple effect throughout the sport. Clijsters might not play the rest of the summer because of wrist surgery. The Williams sisters have battled injuries. Henin-Hardenne missed Wimbledon because of a viral illness.
``It's been a very frustrating year,'' said Mary Joe Fernandez, a former top-10 player who will work as an ESPN analyst at the Bank of the West.
All of this has left Gus Sampras, the new tournament director and Pete's older brother, with a potential finale the Bay Area has seen many times over. Venus Williams and Davenport have played for the title three times since 1997, and only one time in that span (last year) has the final not featured one of them.
Still, Sampras is hardly complaining. He points out that Davenport, a two-time Bank of the West champion, might be making her final Bay Area appearance; she has hinted at retirement. And what tournament wouldn't want Venus Williams?
``When they aren't here, you realize what you've missed,'' Sampras said, referring to the players' absence last year. ``We're fortunate to have both of them coming.''
Fernandez agreed, adding: ``Just having Venus is enough to sell any tournament. To have one of the Williams sisters at your tournament is huge.''
Unfortunately for Bay Area tennis fans, they have seen only the older half of that duo. Serena Williams was to make her Bank of the West debut last year but withdrew on the eve of the tournament because of an injury. She did not enter this year.
``We're not going to give up,'' Sampras said. ``Obviously, this year it's not going to happen. But eventually she'll make it up here.''
Aside from its inability to get Serena Williams on the court, the Bank of the West has been quite fortunate over the years. Although it is only a Tier 2 event -- the WTA's equivalent to, say, college football's Holiday Bowl -- the tournament was the site of Venus Williams' professional debut in 1994 (Oakland was host then), lured Martina Hingis in 1997 when she was No. 1 in the world, and in 1998 boasted Davenport, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Venus Williams. Previous champions have included Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
So although the field this year lacks star power (Patty Schnyder of Switzerland is seeded third, followed by Francesca Schiavone of Italy), tournament officials have no aspirations to make the Bank of the West a Tier 1 event, which would require far more resources -- minimum prize money of $1.3 million, compared with $585,000 for a Tier 2 event -- and WTA approval. The summer Tier 1 events are in San Diego and Montreal.
``Normally, we have a player field of a Tier 1 event,'' Sampras said. ``Sometimes, our player field is better than some Tier 1s get.''
That might have been the case this year if not for bad luck. Clijsters committed early but had to withdraw. Henin-Hardenne might have entered if not for her illness. Capriati, a finalist here last year, is gearing up for the Olympics.
Then there is Sharapova, who probably would have been the
headliner had she entered. But at 17, she is restricted by tour rules to 13 events this year.
``Knock on wood we'll get her next year,'' Sampras said.
So, the Bank of the West will have a fourth final between Davenport and Venus Williams, or one in which most fans will need a program to figure out who is playing.
``This is a great opportunity for Venus to get back on the right path and gear up for the U.S. Open,'' Sampras said. ``And Lindsay, this could be her swan song. As a tournament director, you'd hope they go deep into the week. But when they get on the court, anything can happen.
``Being in the game nine-plus years and watching my brother go out in the first round in a number of events that I've worked on, it's a tough thing to see happen. All I can do is set up everything the best I can, put them on the court and let them go at it.''
And with the game seemingly getting more competitive by the minute, don't be surprised if Davenport or Williams or both are gone before the final.
``I think people would be impressed with the quality and the caliber of the names there,'' said Pam Whytcross, a tour supervisor. ``Even though a lot of them aren't household names and they're tongue twisters, it's the new breed coming through. It's ever-changing.
``It's not a given who is going to win. Having said that, looking at our draw here this week, yes, Venus and Lindsay do stand out. They are the top two in the top 10. But hey, it's no guarantee.''