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TENNIS

WTA in Need of an Extreme Makeover

January 20, 2003|LISA DILLMAN

MELBOURNE, Australia — The sport's leading player, Serena Williams, was asked an ordinary question about the embattled WTA, which had one of its more tumultuous weeks with the twin resignations of Chief Executive Kevin Wulff and Chief Operating Officer Josh Ripple.

Williams looked subdued and preferred not to "share" her thoughts on the matter. This in itself was intriguing. Was she disappointed in tour leadership? Did she agree with Martina Navratilova, who said they should just blow up the tour structure and start over?

Navratilova might be on to something in the wake of one of the tour's more embarrassing episodes last week. Wulff, a genuinely nice guy, if a bit naive, sat in a news conference with three other officials and spoke about how well the WTA is faring, the wonderfulness of everything, and yes, how he was considering stepping down from the job.

Even by tennis standards this was surreal. Almost everyone in the room knew it was already over, and his departure for Adidas became official less than two days later. The waste-of-time spin session was organized solely to counteract a British newspaper report and was designed to say one thing: We weren't sacked.

Point to Wulff. But his departure was no surprise because as far back as last spring there was speculation he was not long for the job, by his choice. A big part of his brief legacy was the debacle of the season-ending WTA Championships, a sparsely attended, much-criticized event at Staples Center.

Blame for the fiasco has to be shared by co-promoters Octagon and the Anschutz Entertainment Group. A change to a round-robin singles format and reduction of the doubles field are being discussed here at the Australian Open. Also, the WTA is without a global title sponsor, having lost Sanex at the end of last year.

Now, the tour is looking for a new leader for the second time in less than two years. Instead of Wulff going out and finding a suitable replacement for Sanex and making sure AEG devotes adequate attention to the championships (actually hiring the bigger staff as promised, for instance), the focus will be on finding a replacement for Wulff.

"It just seems that we cannot find the right person for that job," Lindsay Davenport said. "We definitely don't want somebody in the job that doesn't love it and doesn't have their heart into it. We'll start looking again. Whether it takes five more people or two more people, it's imperative that we get a leader in there that really believes in us and believes where we can go."

Pam Shriver and Navratilova, both past presidents, are rightly concerned about the WTA's future.

"It might be that the structure has so many obstacles," Shriver said. "It's almost like the house that gets the addition here and the addition there. One architect, a second architect, third architect, general contractors, three different ones. By the time you look at it, you're going, 'That is an ugly house.'

"But it's sitting on a beautiful piece of land. Some people are saying, 'Just knock the whole thing down, just gut it, and let's start because we do have the foundation.' "

Navratilova said the structure was stagnant.

"It cannot grow the way it should," she said. "The tournaments have too much power. The players don't have enough power. They're controlling where the game's going and they shouldn't.

"So something needs to be done now. I've said 15 years ago, they should blow up and start over. I still feel that way."

Having said that, the players aren't without control. If the likes of Jennifer Capriati and Serena and Venus Williams don't want to play at Indian Wells, arguably the second-biggest tournament in the United States -- or at least tied for it -- they can stay home in Florida and practice. The three skipped it last year, and no one is expecting to see the Williams sisters in the desert in March.

The WTA has no power in those matters. But Indian Wells is an issue for another day.

Quote, Unquote

Australian Open wild card and former Fresno State player Peter Luczak, who made the third round, nominated the Nash Hotel in Berkeley as the worst on the tour:

"It was a shocker. One community shower. Like four of us in a hotel room. One guy got the bed. The other three on the floor, a stained floor."

Andy Roddick, on whether he would consider wearing a sleeveless shirt a la James Blake:

"If I wore a sleeveless shirt, people would try to feed me after the match. If you got the guns, go for it. I got two breadsticks sticking out of my sleeve. I'll stick with sleeves."

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