Why The Madrid Tournament Is Harming The WTA
Victoria Azarenka, ranked world number five and hitting her straps just in time for the French Open, walked out on court last night to a crowd of about 20 people. She looked every bit the star, dressed in a form-fitting white dress and iPod earphones dangling from her ears, the choice of earrings for female athletes over the world. Barely anyone turned up to watch her play. You couldn’t blame her opponent, she was supposed to be a local favourite. Arantxa Parra Santonja had fought her way through qualifying, and upset Andrea Petkovic and Flavia Pennetta to earn the right to take on Azarenka. Yet nobody turned up to watch. The affair turned out to be lopsided with Azarenka blasting her way to a 6-0 6-3 victory, but perhaps the Spaniard would have done better with some crowd support. This match wasn’t an isolated case; women’s matches in Madrid have only attracted a smattering of spectators, despite the tournament being combined with the men’s. So what is going wrong?
The scheduler leads an uneviable life. Like a game of Sudoku, people in charge of scheduling try to organise many matches into the day’s most suitable slot. It barely ever turns out perfect. They have to accommodate player requests, television ratings, and try to guess what the fans want to see, all in a short amount of time. It’s no wonder they often don’t please everyone. Madrid scheduling, however, has been particularly displeasing. It is as if someone with no knowledge of tennis organised it according to ranking, or prettiness, and got it wrong almost every single time. Last night was a classic example. Azarenka demolished her opponent on the main court, whilst Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova beat 2010 Roland Garros runner-up Sam Stosur in a close match out on Stadium 3. On the same day, a tasty men’s match between Juan Monaco and Tomas Berdych was scheduled for Court Five along with two sets of doubles. Less exciting women’s matches, such as that between Jarmila Gajdosova and Lucie Safarova, were put on a larger court. A larger court isn’t necessarily good for women’s tennis. Any tennis match benefits from atmosphere, whether it be a large one on centre court or a small but rowdy bunch of fans cheering on their charge over on the outer courts. An exciting-sounding atmosphere is more likely to draw people over to check what the fuss is about, as opposed to the sound of balls echoing around a deadly silent stadium. Madrid failed to recognise that this was more important for a tournament and the WTA, and as a result you could guarantee there were more people watching Court Five yesterday than the main court. These are far from isolated events. Madrid scheduling has been woeful since day one. It will all come to a climax on the final day, when the women’s final is played at the same time as the men’s. It is a preposterous move that will harm the WTA and its fans.
Marketing for the Mutua Madrid Open has been heavily male-centric. One poster for the tournament shows three men- Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer- and one woman, Maria Sharapova. In that single poster, Madrid is displaying women’s tennis as a lesser sport, as the sideshow to the main event. It gets worse. Click on the ‘players’ tab and you are presented with a photo of three male players. Even by clicking on the WTA section, you won’t find a picture of any of the listed female players. Instead, we are faced with Nadal, Federer, and Novak Djokvoic. When Madrid are bothering to market the women’s side, they’re focusing on Caroline Wozniacki. Despite being the world’s number one female player, Wozniacki isn’t particularly popular among tennis fans. Non tennis fans barely know who she is. Ana Ivanovic is also constantly present in autograph tents and at exhibitions, despite not having decent results now for a number of years. An autograph session and an exhibition at the start of the tournament featured Ivanovic and Wozniaicki. Sharapova is another who is seen on the Madrid website, but isn’t known for clay court prowess. None of these girls made it past the third round. Players like Na Li, Azarenka, and woman of the moment Julia Goerges don’t get a mention, despite doing better than their autograph-signing counterparts and having greater successes of late. It isn’t much of a stretch to assume the girls the tournament markets will attract more fans. When those girls lose and walk off the court for good, so do the fans. By marketing their best players, not their prettiest, the tournament would encourage fans to watch girls more likely to stick around for longer.
Of course, Madrid isn’t the only tournament making these mistakes. The WTA itself has marketed their players for years as pretty, nice girls who you should support because they are pretty and nice, which probably isn’t the best way to market strong, female athletes. By photo-shopping profile pictures and focusing more on their players who look good in a bikini, the WTA is appealing to hot-blooded men. For an organisation based on women and run by many women, it doesn’t seem the smartest move.
Madrid’s empty crowds have highlighted the problems with the WTA and its tournaments. Combined men’s and women’s events should help the WTA and allow them to target a new fanbase. Alas, with poor scheduling and horrible marketing, Madrid doesn’t seem to have helped the WTA at all. Other combined tournaments should be keeping a close eye on Madrid and learn from its mistakes.