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Monday, November 2, 2009

WTA: Player withdrawals down one-third this year

DOHA, Qatar (AP)—The WTA Tour’s new scheduling system with fewer mandatory tournaments has caused withdrawals to drop by more than one third this season.

The tour has also withstood the global financial crisis, with attendance and prize money up significantly for top events, chief executive Stacey Allaster said Sunday.

Allaster, the former WTA president who took over as chairman and CEO in July, said the tour’s so-called “roadmap” implemented this year has been “a fantastic success.”

The tour lowered the number of non-Grand Slam tournaments top players must enter from 13 to 10 and extended its offseason by two weeks. As a result, Allaster said, player withdrawals from top events is down 34 percent compared to last year.

Meanwhile, attendance was up 11 percent for premier tournaments in 2009, and prize money increased by 34 percent despite the tough economic climate.

“If we don’t have healthy athletes, we can’t have a level of product that we want,” Allaster said on the last day of the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships, where Serena Williams defeated sister Venus in the final.

“That’s why it was important in the roadmap that we scheduled breaks. That is why there is a long break after Wimbledon, so they can take a rest after that grind.”

The longer offseason is also meant to give players more time to recover.

“We have two more weeks for them,” Allaster said. “They have two good months that they can have a good break.”

Still, it was evident that the long season has taken a toll on the players.

The Doha tournament, which featured the top eight women in the world, saw top-ranked Dinara Safina retire in her first match with a serious back injury, and No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki had to quit in her semifinal against Serena Williams.

Victoria Azarenka retired in the third set of her last round-robin mach on Friday, and alternate Vera Zvonareva pulled out after playing one match.

Wozniacki led the tour with 65 wins this season, in addition to playing for Denmark in the Fed Cup.

“Caroline Wozniacki played over 90 matches this year. That’s a lot of play,” Allaster said. “She, I’m sure, will be relooking at her schedule and the level of play that she can have.”

The players in Doha have been overwhelmingly positive about the shorter schedule.

“Comparing to the men’s tour, our schedule is much better,” third-ranked Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova said. “They still have two or three more weeks to go. It’s crazy because you don’t get time to rest and don’t get time to have good preparation before next season. For us, it’s so much different, so much better.”

Some challenges still remain for WTA officials. The tour’s main sponsor Sony Ericsson has yet to decide whether to renew its $88 million contract that expires at the end of the year.

Aldo Liguori, Sony Ericsson’s head of public relations, said he was impressed by the increased interest in the Doha tournament but wouldn’t reveal anything about future sponsorship.

“We still have a little bit of time left,” Liguori said. “I can certainly confirm we are looking at it very carefully. … We haven’t made any decision yet, and all options are open.”

The next step of the WTA’s roadmap is increasing the number of tournaments that are held together with the men’s ATP tour. In 2011, the annual tournaments in Rome and Cincinnati will feature men and women playing at the same time.

“We can all see the success of tennis when it’s combined,” she said. “We do know that combined events are a great strategy. Six of our top events in 2011 will be combined."

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