Gender Blender

As equal-opportunity events like the U.S. Open show, a merger would benefit both the men's and women's tours
September 07, 2008

IT IS THE rare New York Knicks fan who is equally passionate about the WNBA's New York Liberty. Plenty of PGA Tour followers could scarcely care less about the LPGA. And, for that matter, vice versa. Yet the overwhelming majority of tennis fans draw little distinction between the men's and women's tours. Is any devotee of, say, Venus Williams unfamiliar with Rafael Nadal? Does any supporter of Andy Roddick not have an opinion about Maria Sharapova?

This gender equity is one of tennis's great assets, and it was on ample display at last week's U.S. Open in New York City. Ana Ivanovic of Serbia—the top seed in the women's draw and current WTA It Girl—was knocked out in a second-round loss to a French qualifier, Julie Coin. Crowd-pleasing ninth seed James Blake and fourth-seeded David Ferrer were eliminated on the men's side. But the tournament was still on course to shatter attendance records, despite the loss of stars like Ivanovic and a soft economy. The Nadal--Roger Federer rivalry has fans riveted on the men's action, while five women still have a chance to finish the tournament ranked No. 1 in the world. "It's the old tennis saying," Martina Navratilova says. "One plus one equals three."

After years of ignoring this reality the tours are finally getting hip to the math. The ATP and WTA have retreated from their turf wars recently, and they've begun sharing everything from website technology to office space in London. More important, by 2012, six of the nine largest tournaments besides the Grand Slams will become "mixed events," featuring men's and women's fields competing simultaneously. (Currently just two, Miami and Indian Wells, Calif., do so.) Now it's time for the next logical step: merging the tours into a single entity.

Apart from streamlining the bureaucracy and benefiting from economies of scale—eliminating some letters from tennis's notorious alphabet soup, so to speak—a joint tour would be even more attractive to corporate and television partners. And the timing could be perfect. The ATP is looking for new management anyway. It recently announced that embattled executive president and chairman Etienne de Villiers, who came under fire from the players for his aggressive management style, will leave his post at the end of 2008. On the women's side, the WTA is thriving financially, and it has an obvious candidate to head an amalgamated tour: Larry Scott, the WTA's CEO since 2004, who was formerly the No. 2 at the ATP. "Both men's tennis and women's tennis are appealing on their own," says Scott, "but they're much more appealing when they come together."

Tennis being tennis, change might not come easily. Asked about the possibility of a single tour, Ivan Ljubicic, the tour veteran from Croatia who's heavily involved in ATP politics, shrugged. "Maybe," he said, "but there couldn't be equal prize money." When the same question was put to Jelena Jankovic, the Serbian star who's ranked No. 2 in the WTA, she responded, "Maybe, but there would have to be equal prize money." Still, a dual-gendered megatour makes a lot of sense. Maybe the players just need a refresher course in tennis math.

ONLY AT SI.COM Daily U.S. Open analysis from Jon Wertheim.

PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (JANKOVIC)MIXED MASTERS From left, Jankovic, Federer, Williams and Roddick escaped a rash of early-round Open upsets. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (FEDERER)[See caption above] PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (WILLIAMS)[See caption above] PHOTODAVID SAFFRAN/ICON SMI (RODDICK)[See caption above]

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)