The WTA has officially announced its 2009 Calendar. But more importantly, they've finally announced the major schedule reforms that will be implemented next year.
Here are the highlights:
- Longer Off-Season -- Increased from 7 to 9 weeks, with the season now ending at the end of October (as opposed to November)
- Longer Mid-Season Break -- Three week break post-Wimbledon
- Reduced Number of Tier I and II Events -- 20 Tier I/II events, as opposed to 26.
- More Combined Events With Equal Prize Money -- 4 Premier, mandatory events at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, and Beijing, which will see both the men and the women compete (prior to this only Indian Wells and Miami were combined events and only Miami was mandatory). In addition to those four, 13 other tournaments will be combined (Sydney, Moscow, Eastbourne, New Haven, Brisbane, 's-Hertogenbosch, Estoril, Memphis and Acapulco, along with the four Grand Slams). Starting in 2011, Rome Cincinnati and Canada will also be combined events.
- New Second Tier Year End Championship -- Introducing the Commonwealth Bank International Tournament of Champions, which will serve as the season-ending championships for players who finish the Race at #9-16.
- Player Commitment Reduced for Top Players -- Top Players must compete in 10 tournaments as opposed to 13.
- Increased Investment In New Facilities -- $710M earmarked for new stadium facility investments, including in China and Madrid.
- Revenue Sharing -- Introducing revenue sharing to allow players to share in tournament revenue growth and link player commitment to increases in prize money.
- New Ranking System -- Best 16 results counted and more direct linkage with the Tour's top events. Zero points will be awarded for any missed Premier committed tournament, Grand Slam, or YECs.
- Stronger Penalties -- Suspension system for Top 10 players who miss any Premier commitment tournaments and increased withdrawal fines.
- Permanent On Court Coaching at All Events -- Under the new rule, players can request their coach once per set, either on a changeover or at the end of a set. In addition, a player may request her coach if her opponent has requested a medical timeout or change of attire/toilet break. All coaches called on court during televised matches will be required to wear a microphone to capture the coaching conversation for TV viewers.
Well, there's a lot to digest there.
First, I'm very surprised the WTA decided to go forward with on-court coaching. I'm not against it per se, I just always got the sense that fans didn't really like it. But the few times that I've been able to actually hear the on-court coaching I have to say that it has been tremendously insightful. If you get the chance, go to Ana Ivanovic's site and download her match against Razzano in Sydney this year. Really interesting interaction between her and Sven caught between the second and third set. But what's the use for international players who speak in Russian, Spanish, French, etc. Is it going to be like boxing where ESPN has a translator on hand to give us a voiceover?
Second, I'm all for the longer off-season and the longer mid-season break. But didn't the top players do that anyway? They just skipped tournaments in order to rest. It is insane to me to think that tennis only has a nine week off-season. That's shorter than baseball! No wonder players have had to fiddle with their schedules to maintain their physical conditioning throughout the year. I'm not entirely convinced that "giving" the players more vacation time is going fix anything though.
Third, I am generally ALL for the reduced number of events and increased number of combined events (makes my life easier as blogger that's for darn sure). But does this mean that the WTA players will never have their own showcase? That the top players will constantly have to share the stage with the men? That their matches will continue to be moved around in order to fit the whims of the men's organizers? That would be a darn shame. But then again, if it brings more exposure to the WTA, how can we really complain? It would also, presumably, bring better TV coverage.
Finally, I'm very curious about the specifics of the "stronger penalties". How does it work with injury? Are you really going to suspend a player for withdrawing because of a legitimate injury? That is pretty shocking to me. For example, Masha has obviously had to withdraw from every committed tournament after Montreal. What does that mean for her? Is it up to the WTA to be the arbiter of what is "real" injury and what is not? "Maria, your shoulder is torn up so we'll let you off the hook. But Jelena, suck it up, it's just a torn meniscus." Does that seem right?
I'll be very curious to hear what the top players' reactions to this are. Of course, the big showdown will come in March 2009, when the Williams Sisters remind Larry Scott where he can stick his mandatory calendar. They've repeatedly said they will not play at Indian Wells, and the tournament's schedule isn't going to change that. I presume that this means they will be fined a hefty amount and suspended from at least Miami. But is the WTA really going to suspend (a) one of the biggest revenue draws to US tournaments on the women's side and (b) the defending Miami champion? There is NO way the WTA comes out of that one unscathed.
UPDATED: Here's the NY Times' take:
These changes are all well and good, but the most exciting part of the WTA map — for the casual fan — is a significant alteration of a ranking system that can only be described as byzantine. This is a system that rewards quantity over quality, one in which a player can fail to win a Grand Slam event, fail to even reach a Grand Slam final, and still end up as the world’s No. 1 player.
Is Jelena Jankovic really the No. 2 player in the world?
The new WTA map puts a premium on quality by forcing the top 10 players to face each other with a mandatory commitment for the top players to meet in 10 tournaments.
Tennis fan have been anesthetized to caring about who legitimately is No. 1 because the process has been so murky.
And while we debate the morality of investing too much energy in being No. 1, the reality is that we want to know who is No. 1 — who is the best player. Tennis does not give us a clear picture. This road map creates a more stable system.
Some critics say the new plan is aimed at the Williams sisters, who famously throughout their careers have chosen not to cram too many tournaments into their schedule. Their scheduling has been part of a philosophy that leaves time for outside interests. Tennis has too often been distinguished by young players who burn themselves out.
At the other extreme from the Williamses, some players compete in a high volume of tournaments and achieve a high ranking.
In some ways, the WTA’s road map validates the Williamses’ approach to quality over quantity.
This new system also potentially creates a stronger product for the tournament directors.
In a statement, Venus Williams, a member of the players council, called the changes “a great example of players and tournaments working together to make our sport better for fans, better for players and better for tournaments.”
There are stiff fines and suspensions for pulling out of tournaments. There are provisions for players who cannot — or for some reason, refuse — to play in a tournament.
This aspect can, in fact, be attributed to the Williams sisters, who refuse to play at Indian Wells, Calif., one of the mandatory tournaments. Their snub of the tournament stems from a 2001 incident in which Venus withdrew with an injury, and both women were booed and heckled by fans.
In such circumstances, players will be able to make appearances and conduct clinics in the area of a tournament to fulfill their commitment. The WTA could not, however, completely turn its back on players who decide to compete in smaller events.
“You want to reward players who put themselves out there by playing extra tournaments, that helps build the sport,” Scott said.
But too many players have used smaller tournaments to make up for poor results against top competition. This new road map hopefully — thankfully — puts an end to fattening résumés.
“We want to reward the difficulty factor,” Scott said. “We want our best players meeting on the biggest stage as often as possible.”
That is as it should be. That is the true meaning of No. 1.
Finally. Rankings with a meaning.