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Indian Wells event provides glimpse into future of women's tennis

Serena and Venus Williams are again no-shows, for the ninth year in a row. New chief of women’s tour must find ways to keep sport relevant and develop new stars.

March 15, 2010|Bill Dwyre

We are in the second week of the prestigious BNP Paribas Open Minus Venus and Serena. The BNPPOMVS.

Bad acronym. Not catchy, just honest.

For the female half of this tennis event at Indian Wells, it has been that way for the last nine years, making it an annual affair.

The issue has moved from them not being here. Deal with it folks. They aren't coming back. Their confrontation with the crowd in 2001 and dad Richard Williams' characterization a week or so later that the whole thing was racist is a tattoo on this event.

New owner Larry Ellison said he wants them back, but being the fourth-wealthiest man in the world won't be enough. Learning to change wine into water might do it.

Last year, from the WTA's bonus pool alone, Serena Williams forfeited $400,000 and Venus $150,000 for failure to play the mandatory Indian Wells event. Apparently $550,000 isn't motivation enough.

There was a telling quote from Ellison published recently. He said he hadn't been able to reach the Williams sisters through their agents. Larry Ellison calls and you don't answer? Holy Fort Knox!

That was mildly disputed Monday morning at a round-table discussion with the media and women's tour Chief Executive Stacey Allaster.

"As far as I know today," Allaster said, "calls to their agents have not been made." She also said, "I know the type of people they [Venus and Serena] are, and I know they will take his phone call."

The bigger picture here is the future of women's tennis, especially without Venus, 30 in June, and Serena, 29 in September. It will be up to Allaster to guide the tour through that transition. No easy deal.

As tennis legend Tracy Austin said Monday, "We've been spoiled over the years." She named Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. She should have thrown herself in there too.

"But I don't see anybody in the next few years ready to fill the shoes of Venus and Serena. Big shoes."

Allaster takes this on in the midst of ongoing change and growing competition for the sports dollar. She took over last summer from Larry Scott, who became the commissioner of the Pacific 10 Conference and shed a huge headache. Ten lousy basketball teams is easy compared to the fragile world of women's tennis.

Allaster is now in the vision-for-the future seat. Also the smooth-it-over seat. She said Serena's much-watched outburst at the U.S. Open had not hurt women's tennis and she considered it "one evening out of character."

Allaster said that the retaining of tour sponsor Sony Ericsson was key, and it was, even though the cellphone company came forth with less money this time around.

Allaster called that an opportunity to grow the WTA brand separately, especially at its season-ending title event. That's in Doha this year and Istanbul the three years after that. Get your tickets now.

She pointed to attendance growth at the U.S. Open, Miami and here at Indian Wells. How much of that is due to women's tennis and how much to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is hard to pinpoint. OK, it isn't hard.

She has hired an expert in social media to help grow the WTA brand, is romancing China and called her sport a "global product." She called the NBA's David Stern her kind of visionary. To her credit, she did not say she would "think outside the box."

The real growth in the product will be where it has always been, and where it was Monday.

On Court 3, Shahar Peer and Flavia Pennetta banged through a terrific three-set match, Peer winning. Both are good players, both attractive personalities.

Next on the same court was newcomer Yanina Wickmayer, whose out-of-nowhere success is a good story. She beat unheralded Roberta Vinci of Italy, who served and volleyed in her key service game of the second set. Good stuff. Even the men don't try that much anymore, a huge loss to the game.

On center court, in a key-lime-pie dress, Serbian Jelena Jankovic, a compelling character in the process of building a 20,000-square-foot house in San Diego, won a tough three-setter of her own.

Kim Clijsters, who lost a long and wrenching 2 1/2-hour three-setter late Monday to Alisa Kleybanova of Russia, usually brings the sunshine.

Justine Henin is back and brings along her smooth-as-a-vanilla-milkshake backhand. Maria Sharapova keeps breaking down, but keeps trying.

These are among the stars of a future without Venus and Serena.

Also in that future, Ellison's tournament will stop receiving money from the WTA Tour for the Williams sisters' absence. Those are called "mis-commitment checks."

Who says Roger Clemens has no influence on women's tennis?

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