Saturday, March 12, 2011

In support of smaller tennis events

I didn’t make the trip to Family Circle Cup last year. My reasons, if you remember, had everything to do with Serena’s decision to withdraw. But given her recent run of health challenges, I have been forced to accept that I can no longer base my attendance plans on the chance of seeing Serena play. In turn, I have been forced to discover some new talent. The result is that I have generally become less Slam-focused and have been paying even more attention to some of the smaller tennis events.

It helps of course that a string of exciting newbies – and some late bloomers – have managed to bring a level of excitement and attention to smaller events that have long suffered the fate of being what many tennis fans put up with while waiting for the next Slam to roll around. Between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (two time champ in Monterrey), Magdalena Rybarikova (winner in Memphis), and Petra Kvitova (winner Open GDF SUEZ), not to mention the resurgence of Jelena Dokic in Malaysia, and the refusal of Kimiko Date to be defined by her age or location – women’s tennis has lately been a sweet blend of the new and the nostalgic.

The same is true on the men's side of the tour. The emergence of Raonic and Dogopolov, to name just two, has helped to attract new energy for fans gone weary of the inevitable Nadal-Federer final. For myself personally, this rivalry will never grow stale. But I too understand the importance of injecting new blood into any sport. And as with the women, it’s been sweet to watch some of the Old Farts as they refuse to roll over and play dead. In the end, it’s the fans who win.

Thanks especially to some of these talented newbies, I have been satisfied to discover that the next generation of tennis seems to be in tremendous hands. And what I like about many of these newbies is that they are not all playing the same kind of cookie-cutter baseline bashing typical of players coming out of the tennis factories in Florida. (Let’s face it, you see one Bollettieri product, you’ve seen them all). These players are bringing a level of variety that is refreshing for both the ATP and the WTA tours.

Sadly, none of the WTA newbies appear (as yet?) among the confirmed list for the 2011 Family Circle Cup. I was nevertheless thrilled to discover that there’s gonna be a whole lotta shaking going on in Charleston this year. It's going to be super tough to predict which of the confirmed attendees will still be hanging around by Championship weekend. Just yesterday Wozniacki announced that she will be there. And because she is the current favorite (in my opinion) in any one-week competition, you know that some of the previously confirmed attendees are probably not too thrilled by this news.

Among the other confirmed players are Samantha Stosur, the defending champion, who crushed Vera Zvonareva in a largely one-sided match last year (6-0 6-3). I have not seen Vera’s name among those confirmed to be playing. Maybe she’s so busy being mentally strong that she forgot she has points to defend. And really, I do look forward to seeing her game up close. I’d like to get a better sense of what has really changed for her.

Other confirmed participants include Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, Shahar Peer, Nadia Petrova, Daniela Hantuchova, Melanie Oudin, and Sabine Lisicki. Of the above names, I am most excited by the confirmation of Sabine Lisicki. Yes I know that she is the lowest ranked member of that group, but I can’t help whom my heart loves, and my heart fell hard for Lisicki when I saw her play for the first time at this same event two years ago. Since then injuries have prevented her from producing her best tennis. But for me she is one of the talented newbies with whom I would gladly entrust tennis’ future.

I think that it is important to support these smaller tennis events. Indeed, this brings me to one of the changes I would like to see in tennis (change #8? I’ve lost count). I would like to see both the WTA and the ATP do a better job of promoting some of these smaller, more affordable events. I am thrilled that Family Circle magazine has continued its support of this tournament at a time when the economy has gone bust and corporate funding seems to be slowly drying up. But we can’t leave it all up to corporate sponsors. We fans too have to play our part. But so too do the WTA and the ATP. And frankly, they are not doing enough.
(Part 1 of 2)

(Sabine Lisicki)

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