The new head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) regards the Middle East as one of the key areas in determining the future of her sport and a region she intends to promote. Stacey Allaster, who yesterday at the US Open began overseeing her first grand slam tournament since taking over as WTA chairman and chief executive from the highly-respected Larry Scott, believes the Gulf's perfect climate at certain times of the year makes it an ideal stage for top-quality tennis.
"The Middle East is an area that can be developed tennis wise," said Allaster in an exclusive interview with The National. "The Dubai tournament is about to move to a new stadium and improvements have been made to the complex in Doha [current home of the season-ending Sony Ericsson Tour Championships]. "Both venues are hugely popular with our leading players and we are extremely happy with what they provide to the quality of our Tour."
Allaster confessed to being pleased and relieved that her predecessor's negotiating skills averted a potential crisis in Dubai six months ago when Israel's Shahar Peer was refused entry to play in the tournament. "It was most unfortunate that we all had to go through what we did in February," she reflected. "We had a meeting at Wimbledon with Dubai Duty Free (DDF) [the tournament's organisers] and we are all moving forward, I'm glad to say."
Allaster is excited by the planned move of the Dubai Championships in 2011 from its cosy home at the Aviation Club to a bigger stadium in Dubai Sports City "DDF have shown their real commitment to wanting to improve women's tennis in the region," she said. "They have maximum capacity at the venue and they feel it's right to move to a new site. There is no doubt that a new venue enhances the fan experience and that of the players. It will be an exciting and dynamic tournament."
The Dubai tournament was upgraded this year as part of the WTA's new "roadmap" strategy and the increased prize money of US$2million (Dh7.34m) attracted all of the world's top 10 women's players to the UAE - a rare feat which the organisers should be proud of, according to Allaster. Dubai is now on a par with the attractive events in Rome, Cincinnati, Toronto, and Tokyo as the WTA seek to streamline their calendar to reduce the workload of their leading performers and prevent player burn-out.
"The roadmap is working very well," Allaster said. "The top players are now meeting 90 per cent of their commitments which is significantly up from last year. We know that there will be injuries because we are dealing with human beings here but the idea has been to let them plan out their programme in advance and stick to it." Allaster rejected suggestions that she and her colleagues in the WTA hierarchy need to oversee a review of the rankings system which allows Dinara Safina and Jelena Jankovic to reach the status of world No 1 without winning a grand slam.
"Rankings is a debate that has continued over several years," said Allaster. "Our ranking system is designed to reward strong and consistent results over a 52-week period. "That's the way our sport has managed the ranking system. We are trying to find a balance. We know that we need to reward players for fantastic performances in the grand slams. There is no question about that. "At the same time though we are keen to promote the rest of our tour calendar. But we also have to reward the athletes for competing regularly on our tour.
"Fans will determine how they want to look at their champions. Safina has performed consistently well over a long period of time. As a result of that she is our No 1 and I, for one, don't have a problem with that. "But you never say 'never' in this business and I'm sure we will continue to keep looking at how the system works." Allaster was also bullish in terms of defending her tour in response to comments that it lacks charismatic figures.
"We have two of the greatest champions in the history of our sport in Venus and Serena Williams," she declared. "We have all missed Maria Sharapova [who was sidelined for nearly 10 months with a damaged shoulder.] And we wish her the very best as she recovers from her injury. She is doing that in a careful way to try to give herself longevity and her return will eventually give us a real boost." Allaster disclosed that one of her priorities is taking tennis into new parts of the world like India, where she believes there is a massive market to be tapped, and Brazil.
"For the Sony Ericsson WTA tour to have a footprint in countries like India and Brazil is part of our long-term in thinking," she said. "We are probably not ready yet to have a professional tournament there but there is no reason why we shouldn't have a presence in those countries and to build o the fan bases there." "We need to be an organisation that is adaptable and not afraid to step outside our comfort zone.
"Larry has left our organisation in the best shape it has been in for many years. "It's up to me now to take the next building block from what Larry had started and make our Tour truly global." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org