The WTA’s new plan makes a lot of things better and some worse.

The WTA has a problem. Top ten players are dropping out of tournaments at a rate we’ve never seen before. Sometimes they drop out due to valid injury and sometimes they drop out because they don’t want to play. Last year Maria Sharapova withdrew from Montreal at the last minute and this year Justine Henin played Dubai and Doha and skipped Indian Wells. Amelie Mauresmo always skips Indian Wells.

The number of injuries has genuinely increased but players have also become bigger than the game. Sharapova is the biggest draw in the WTA. If she decides to pull out of a tournament at the last minute, there’s no one to stop her. And it’s not just in tennis.

Basketball player Kobe Bryant threatened to jump to the cross town Los Angeles Clippers if the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t get rid of Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers traded O’Neal.

High school players have become bigger than the college programs that recruit them. O.J. Mayo is the best high school basketball player in the U.S. An acquaintance of Mayo’s waltzed into USC coach Tim Floyd’s office and asked him if he’d like to have Mayo on his team next year. Floyd was suspicious since he’d never spoken to Mayo so he asked for Mayo’s cellphone number. He was informed that Mayo does not give out his cellphone number. Sounds like a scene from a mafia movie: “Have I got a deal for you. But don’t call us, we’ll call you.” USC, of course, is welcoming Mayo even if it’s entirely on the kid’s terms.

How is the WTA reining in the players? The WTA is giving a little and wants a lot in return.

The plan is called Roadmap 2010 and here’s what it gives the players:

  • Reduction in the total number of tournaments required from 13 down to 10.
  • Increase in prize money of 30% to approximately $72 million.
  • Rankings based on the best 16 tournaments instead of 17.
  • Increase in the off season from 7 weeks to 9 weeks.

“Look, ” the WTA is saying, “we’ll help you reduce injuries by lowering the total tournaments required and shortening the season and we’ll sweeten the deal financially if you play more of the top tournaments, but, in return, you have to cooperate with our new tournament calendar and we’ll penalize you heavily if you don’t.”

That new calendar will have twenty premium events and remaining lower level events. Four of the premium events, Indian Wells, Miami, Beijing and Madrid (a new event), are required, everyone must play them. If a player skips one of the required tournaments without a valid medical excuse, she’ll be suspended from the next two premium events.

If Justine Henin had skipped Doha this year without a certifiable medical condition, she would have been suspended from Indian Wells and Miami. Not that Henin doesn’t have legions of medical excuses, mind you, and therein lies a problem.

Serena and Venus Williams have not played Indian Wells since 2001when Serena was booed mercilessly in the title game. Venus had pulled out of the sisters’ semifinal minutes before the match and the crowd was mad because it looked like the sisters decided they didn’t want to play each other – another version of players being bigger than the game.

Serena and Venus are never going to play Indian Wells again. The sisters will produce medical evidence of injury and skip Doha, the tournament before Indian Wells, so it doesn’t look like they’re doing it intentionally, then they’ll play Miami. The main effect of the penalties will be to keep players from dropping out at the last minute and leaving tournament directors in the lurch.

How will the WTA herd the players towards the big tournaments? By penalizing lower level tournaments for having too many top players. And this part is controversial, particularly in the U.S.

According to a memo from the US Tennis Association (USTA) to the WTA obtained by Peter Bodo and discussed here, all but the top tier premium tournaments will be limited to either 2 of the top 6 or 3 of the top 13 players. If a tournament wants to add an additional player, it could be required to increase its prize money by $800, 000.

None of the U.S. tournaments has the money to apply for top tier premium status and they certainly don’t have $800, 000 sitting around. The US tennis association is unhappy because the US Open Series will suffer if its tournaments can’t attract enough top players. That means the US Open could suffer because the whole point of the Open Series is to build momentum for the Open.

I’m happy the WTA is increasing the off season and threatening mayhem if players don’t turn up at important tournaments, we’ve screamed enough about that here, but the US Open Series works so don’t mess with it. And $800, 000 is a ridiculous amount of money to request for one player. Otherwise, carry on.

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