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There's a price to pay for tennis stars who pass on Indian Wells

BILL DWYRE

Because of WTA rules, potential losses can get into the millions.

March 13, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Talk about financial bailouts.

As one of the biggest events in tennis started to gather steam in the desert Thursday, three of the biggest names in the women's game became notable as big losers.

To be clear, that term can never apply to Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams. Among them, they have won 20 Grand Slam event titles -- Serena 10, Venus 7 and Sharapova 3.

This is strictly about money. This year's BNP Paribas Open, an event that pays a $4.5 million purse to the women alone, represent millions of dollars in losses to this talented trio.

If money talks, these three have little to say this week. One of them, Sharapova, exited stage left Thursday in a doubles match decided on match point by a net-cord volley. The Williams sisters, on the other hand, never entered.

This is a story that began eight years ago at this very same tournament. Venus and Serena were to play each other in a semifinal. It was a marquee match. Much anticipation world-wide. Stands packed in a shiny new stadium called the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. ESPN poised to go GaGa, as only ESPN can.

Then Venus Williams defaulted minutes before the match, saying she had tendinitis in her knee. And when Serena took the court to play Kim Clijsters in the final, she was booed and her father, Richard, was quoted later as saying some fans had yelled racist things.

The Williams sisters, Serena now No. 1 in the world and Venus No. 5, have never returned, and likely won't.

That became a catalyst for the women's tour to look at itself and its procedures. Another was the entire season of 2006, when there were an extraordinary number of late withdrawals and injury and illness absences. So, last summer, the WTA Tour faced the increasing perception that its own players were walking all over them and, in turn, thumbing their noses at fans and sponsors.

Talk about playing hardball.

They made new rules, called Road Map 2010, that increased annual prize money to $84.4 million, up from $63.6 million only two years ago, while tightening the screws on how to acquire some of that.

Part of this was a bonus pool, worth $1.9 million, for top 10 players at the end of the year who participate in four premier tournaments, each designated as such because of their $4.5 million in prize money. Those four are Indian Wells, the event that follows immediately in Miami, plus tournaments in Madrid and Beijing.

From that pool, No. 1 at the end of the year gets $400,000, and down the line to No. 10 and $100,000.

The kicker is that, if you don't play in one of the four, for whatever reason, you get nothing -- even if you play in the other three, win them all, and finish in the top 10. This is zero tolerance. No doctors in the equation. No pink slips. No excuses. No play, no pay.

Also, if you don't play, you get zero ranking points, and each of these four tournaments represents one-sixteenth of the tournaments from which yearly rankings are determined.

There's more.

If you don't play, you will be fined unless you participate in a tour-mandated public relations event -- a promotional news conference, a photo shoot, a sponsor's party. The size of that fine depends on the height of the ranking. Were Serena Williams to skip her makeup duty, she will be fined $75,000; Venus $50,000.

While Sharapova's case differs from that of the Williams sisters, the result is the same. All three are out of the top 10 bonus pool. Period.

Thursday, Sharapova played in her first tournament since August. She had shoulder surgery Oct. 15, and came to Indian Wells to test the shoulder and to "just get back out there, to be in that atmosphere." She did not play singles, so she loses the bonus pool money and the ranking points. Her doubles appearance merely saved her from having to do another promotional appearance for the tour.

Neither Williams sister is injured. They aren't here because they choose not to be. The merits of that stance has been, and will be, continually argued. There is no arguing the financial impact.

Some speculative, eye-opening math, using Serena Williams as the sample, shows the following:

If she finishes No. 1, her first loss would be the $400,000 from the bonus pool. If she decides to ignore the makeup appearance, that would be another $75,000. By not playing, she misses a chance at first-place money here of $700,000. Were she to team with Venus and win the doubles, that would be $118,500, her half of $237,000. That's $1,293,500.

Then, there are endorsements. One WTA official speculated Thursday that Serena's Nike contract, just as one example, "might have as much as two million dollars of incentive money for ending up No. 1." Winning at Indian Wells is worth 1,000 ranking points.

Serena, who now leads No. 2 Dinara Safina by 422, gets zero.

So, conceivably, Serena's no-thanks to Indian Wells could have cost her more than $3 million, or about 13% of her career tennis winnings of $23 million.

Talk about one expensive decision.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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