Format Favors Fans and Players
November 5, 2008 -- The year-end WTA event began in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1972 as The Virginia Slims Championships. No one would ever think today that a cigarette manufacturer would sponsor a tennis event, or any other sporting event for that matter. But as its ad campaign promoted back then, "You've come a long way baby." And, the WTA had to start someplace. So, thank you Virginia Slims.
Fast-forward to 2008 and Doha, Qatar, the home for the next three years of the Sony Ericsson's WTA Championships. The Khalifa Tennis Complex is new to Doha, like so many other buildings here. The Central Court at the facility is a massive structure that seems off-putting and cold, though. The audiences have been small and rather quiet, too, even though ticket prices are reasonably priced. Maybe the fans don't realize that this championship is a celebration. Like... it's the year-ending celebration. And, that the eight elite players competing in the round-robin format worked their collective tails off for 11 months just to step foot on the purple court.
Fans should also know that the round-robin format is more for them than it is for the players, who don't use it any other time of the year. Lose in the first round of a Grand Slam, or any other WTA tournament, and you pack your bags. Not here, though. Lose a match in Doha and you have to come back the next day and face another elite-eight player, not someone ranked around 100. Therefore, the players' physical stamina and mental abilities have to be re-charged within twenty-four hours. That's an additional challenge coupled with the rigor of the matches they face. However, the rewards are enticing: extra ranking points -- 750 for the winner -- and cash -- $1,340,000 for the winner. Even if one player loses two matches, like Ana Ivanovic has, she still has incentive to come back the next round and fight for points and money.
Fans' well-priced tickets come with the guarantee that they will witness the best players of 2008 compete everyday. That's a good deal.
Ana Ivanovic seeded #4 and Vera Zvonareva seeded #8 came out first today. On her way to the court, Ivanovic told Tracy Austin that she was excited to have another opportunity to try and qualify for a semifinal berth. Ivanovic's attitude was positive and refreshing for a woman who suffered dizziness and dehydration just a few short hours ago in her first match. Nine days ago, Ivanovic had beaten Vera Zvonareva in the final at Linz, Austria, 62 61. Although the court surface was slicker than the Deco Turf II in Doha, Ana probably thought she had a good chance of defeating the Russian today. But Zvonareva played as if she'd just returned from a long vacation.
Her ground game was consistently strong. Her shots penetrated the court. She played with finesse and accuracy, effectively moving Ivanovic from side to side and keeping her off balance for most of the match. The Russian's improved fitness helped, too. However, the most noticeable improvement in her game was her emotional stability and mental keenness, which was seriously lacking in years past. Zvonareva always showed signs of excellence, but if a match didn't go her way she couldn't regroup. Instead, she cried and threw emotional fits that dragged her down and out of matches, and made fans uncomfortable.
Not today. Not this Vera Zvonareva. She convincingly defeated the French Open champion 63 67(5) 64. Off for 4-5 months in 2007, due to a wrist injury, Zvonareva rank has jumped from #23 to #9 this year. She is in first place in the White Group. No one expected that.
Venus Williams played Elena Dementieva in the second match of the day. This is Venus's first trip back to the year-ending championships in six years. Her determination on court today showed fans why, too. With neither player showing much inclination to come to the net, the first set was Williams's by one break of serve. In the second set, Dementieva repaid the favor, winning with a break. In the third set, Williams net play and massive wingspan helped her clinch the victory 46 64 63. Tomorrow, Venus will face her sister Serena.
In the final match of the day, Serena Williams defeated a lackluster Dinara Safina in straight sets 64 61. This was Serena's second match since her victory at the U. S. Open. She may not have felt on top of her game, but her competitive nature and championship attitude served her well. Between points, she seemed to center herself by closing her eyes and letting out a long breath of air in preparation for the next point. It worked well. Dinara Safina donated seven double faults to Serena's win, too, one on the last point of the match.
With her loss today, Safina eliminates herself from the contest to advance to the semifinals. However, she still can fill her pockets with money and her ranking status with points.