Tuesday November 1st, 2011

Petra Kvitova topped Victoria Azarenka to win the WTA Championships in front of packed crowds in Istanbul. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

WTA: A. A well-attended event in a country without a rich tennis history? Held in Turkey for the first time, the WTA Championships exceeded expectations with high-quality tennis and an engaged and somewhat knowledgeable crowd that only grew as the week progressed. That the tournament succeeded without relying on the marketing power of the Williams sisters, Kim Clijsters or even Ana Ivanovic bodes well for the event's future.

Maria Sharapova's presence in the field definitely helped with marketing, and Caroline Wozniacki's sponsorship deal with Turkish Airlines meant another recognizable face for fans in Istanbul. Even after the top two crashed out by Day 3 and only six women -- each accomplished but with little marketing power -- remained, the Championships didn’t suffer. Credit the organizers' decision to keep the ticket prices low (the two-tiered pricing scheme put tickets at $6-$12 USD) and promote the heck out of it.

"Don't put the corporate type like me front and center," WTA CEO Stacey Allaster said of the pricing scheme. "Bring the fans down, bring the people down so they can feel it and get energized and ultimately want to play. Part of it, not only the layout of the stadium, but it was also the ticket‑pricing strategy to ensure we had a full house."

Tournament organizers confessed to expecting around 8,000 fans, but more than 10,000 showed up on the first day and additional sections had to be opened to accommodate the increased demand. After all was said and done, 70,824 people came through for the week with 13,676 for Sunday's final alone. The stands were even packed for doubles, something Tour veteran Lisa Raymond has never seen.

"I have never played a doubles match in front of that many people, even at a Slam," said Raymond, who teamed with Liezel Huber to win the title. "That was awesome."

That's not to say the tournament was perfect. Players complained about the imperfect court surface, practice booking and transportation problems, while reporters were left without power to laptops in the media center on Day 1 and unreliable internet access. But these logistical issues are easily remedied with experience.

Getting butts into seats and rewarding the players for the efforts were the WTA's top priorities. On those metrics, it scored off the charts.

Petra Kvitova: A-minus. I think I've written enough about Kvitova this week. The only reason I'm not giving her an "A-plus" is because that yelp makes me jump out of my seat.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: A. The Frenchman came back from a break down in the third set to beat Juan Martin del Potro in the Vienna final and win his second title of the year (both post-U.S. Open). The victory also greatly helped his position in the race to make the ATP Tour World Finals in London, as Tsonga and Mardy Fish both have 500-point leads on the rest of the field for the final two qualification spots.

Tsonga is even closing in on Tomas Berdych for the sixth spot in the Battle for London. He added 45 points with a win in the first round of the Valencia Open on Tuesday. Berdych is in action at the Swiss Indoors, but will only start adding points by reaching the semifinals.

Fans win if Tsonga is able to qualify. The stage-like setup under the lights of the O2 Arena was made for an animated player like Tsonga.

Marin Cilic: A. There was a time when Cilic was being eyed as the Next Big Thing. That was a two-month period in the beginning of 2010, when Cilic won Chennai and Zagreb, made the semifinals of the Australian Open (losing to Andy Murray in four sets) and climbed into the top 10. He's struggled since then, falling into the low 30s before slowly working his way back up to his current spot at No. 19. The lanky Croat has proved hesitant in pivotal moments to play "Big Man Tennis" and go for his shots (a la del Potro). So it was nice to see him back in the winner's circle last week as he captured his first title in 14 months, defeating a red-hot Janko Tipsarevic 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 in St. Petersburg. Maybe the win will jump-start Cilic. I'd like to go back to those days when you could regularly count on him for a solid upset.

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