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Tennis Marquee Misses Sister Act

Tour's season-ending event will feature a race for the No. 1 ranking but no Williamses.

November 03, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

How do you promote a tournament without Serena and Venus Williams?

Indian Wells has been faced with that troublesome task the last two years, and events in Palo Alto, Carlsbad, Carson, Toronto and New Haven, Conn., confronted that question when the sisters were sidelined because of injuries after the Wimbledon final in July.

Then the U.S. Open joined the long list of tournaments and became the first Grand Slam to feature neither sister since Serena joined Venus on the tour as a regular in 1998.

Los Angeles, welcome to the world of Indian Wells and New York.

Unlike Indian Wells and the U.S. Open, the season-ending Bank of America WTA Tour Championships, which start at Staples Center on Wednesday, don't have a men's field to wallpaper any player shortfalls. This is the second year the event has been held in Los Angeles, and the winner receives $1 million.

Still, tournament officials were hardly caught off guard by the absence of Serena and Venus Williams, as well as Lindsay Davenport, who had foot surgery last month, ending her year prematurely. The three players hold a combined 13 Grand Slam singles titles.

But there was no last-minute blast of disappointment, because all three had been counted out of the tournament long before their official withdrawals. There's something to be said about lowered expectations -- little chance of broken promises hurtling back like a boomerang of disappointment.

In fact, the release put out by the tour officials Friday citing the qualification of Anastasia Myskina of Russia, Ai Sugiyama of Japan and Venus Williams noted that Willliams was expected to be replaced by Chanda Rubin because of a continuing abdominal strain. And Sunday it became official.

The other five singles qualifiers are No. 1-ranked and defending champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium; French Open and U.S. Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne of Belgium; Jennifer Capriati; Amelie Mauresmo of France; and Elena Dementieva of Russia. Mauresmo, who defeated Myskina in three sets in the final at Philadelphia on Sunday, qualified last year but could not play because of an injured right knee.

Instead of single elimination, the format has been changed to round robin. The doubles field has been cut back from eight teams to four and includes Martina Navratilova and partner Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.

Those changes were made after last year's disappointing inaugural tournament at Staples. Not only was the event tinged with a negative tone, locally -- caused by minuscule turnouts in the opening days -- there was an international perception that tumbleweeds were all but rolling through Staples Center.

Officials took measures to try to prevent a repeat of 2002. Shawn Hunter, the chief marketing officer of Anschutz Entertainment Group, said in an interview last week that AEG has had five to six people working exclusively on the championships since late January in addition to its online marketing group and has made a big grass-roots push through the vast network of tennis clubs in Southern California.

Hunter said that they were averaging about 7,500 per session, as of last week.

Without the Willliamses competing, the WTA has taken the approach of promoting the event by pushing the celebration of the tour's 30th anniversary. Sunday, the tournament will honor Billie Jean King, a collection of former No. 1 players and the founding nine members of the tour.

AEG, which has spent about $1 million in promoting the event, is focusing on the race between Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne for the year-end No. 1 spot, and also has increased the visibility of the event in downtown Los Angeles.

Unlike last year, when there was no indication there was tennis being played at Staples, there will be a number of cosmetic changes outside the building, including the creation of a Tennis Village, adjacent to Chick Hearn Court. There also will be a 200-foot banner publicizing the event on the South Hall of the L.A. Convention Center, facing the freeway, officials said.

*

The two groups for the round-robin format were announced Sunday. Clijsters, Mauresmo, Dementieva and Rubin were in the red group. Henin-Hardenne, Capriati, Myskina and Sugiyama were in the black group.

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