By Mike Cormack, Sportsnet.ca
The Rogers Cup events are about to take on a drastically different look and feel as a result of major changes coming to the world’s two major tennis tours.
Last year, the Associated Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Sony Ericsson Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced plans to host more joint events, including the Rogers Cup beginning in 2011.
So three years from now, the two Rogers Cup events will be held the same week, but in different cities – Montreal and Toronto.
Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey said the change was an easy call considering the direction of the two tours.
"They key for us was to remain in the top tier of events," Downey said. "As an event, you have to get bigger. You can’t stand still. The tours were moving toward combined events and we could see it."
Downey said the tours wanted combined men’s and women’s Rogers Cup events to be played in a single city, but he successfully argued for a hybrid of the current two-city model. He believes the changes will raise the profile of the events while allowing Canadian tennis fans the chance to see more of Maria, Anna and Serena.
The two Rogers Cup events, held now in Toronto and Montreal on a rotating basis in successive weeks, are two of the oldest and best attended tennis tournaments in the world.
The men’s event, scheduled this year for July 19-27 in Toronto, has long been blessed with strong fields and its list of recent champions includes such stars as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick.
However the women’s event has struggled in recent years with last-minute withdrawals and early exits from a number of top players. The Sony Ericsson Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour as a whole has been plagued by suspect injuries and ever-shrinking playing schedules among its top stars.
Enter Roadmap 2010, a WTA tour blueprint consisting of schedule changes, a longer off-season and new sanctions that include the ability to suspend top players for withdrawing from events without legitimate injuries.
As part of the Roadmap and starting next year, the Rogers Cup will become one of the WTA Tour’s new "Premier 5" events, guaranteeing it at least seven of the top 10 players.
That, combined with new sanctions for late withdrawals, a boost in prize money from $1.3 million to $2 million and a new spot in the schedule, has Tennis Canada’s Downey confident the annual parade of late-withdrawals will become a thing of the past.
"Under the new rules, women can’t skip the same event twice," he said. "So if Maria (Sharapova) doesn’t come one year, she has to be back the next. Also, if they do withdraw at the last minute, they will be obligated to return at some point during the calendar year to do some PR work for the event."
Downey, who joined Tennis Canada four years ago, added that as much as loose attendance policies may have hurt the women’s Rogers Cup in the past, a spot on the schedule following West Coast events in Los Angeles and San Diego may have hurt even more.
As of next year, however, the San Diego event will cease to exist and it will be replaced by an event in Cincinnati, a much easier commute for players traveling to Canada.
But the victory for tennis fans in Toronto and Montreal has created several logistical problems for Tennis Canada in the process.
For starters, Rogers title sponsorship for the two events expires after the 2008 tournament and it’s not known what, if any, effect a switch to simultaneous events in 2011 might have on renewal talks.
Downey said Rogers is aware of the plans for simultaneous or "virtually combined" events, as Tennis Canada prefers to call it, and he "feels good" about the prospects for a renewal.
Sponsorship dollars are often tied to television exposure and a virtually combined Rogers Cup in 2011 will likely result in less overall TV and media exposure.
Downey said Tennis Canada believes a combined event will result in "fewer hours, but more eyeballs" on TV because, like a Grand Slam event where women and men play at the same time, broadcasters and fans watching at home will have a larger and better selection of matches.
Like Rogers’ title sponsorship, the current television deals expire at the end of 2008.
Downey said the current rights holders (CBC and TSN) were advised and consulted about the move to a virtually combined event in 2011, and "in principle they understand and support the decision."
"We’ve got our work cut out for us, no question," said Downey.
In the meantime, the Beijing Olympics has forced this year’s men’s event to be moved up by a week to July 19-27, the same week golf’s RBC Canadian Open will be held in Oakville, ON.
Downey admits it’s not an ideal situation to have two of Canada’s biggest summer sporting events held the same week, but he said advance ticket sales are $300,000 ahead of 2006, the last time the men played in Toronto and a record year for attendance.
Federer, Nadal and Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, are all expected to play, and for the first time each, as a champion in the past five years – will have access to a helicopter service from downtown Toronto to the Rexall Centre at York University. The flight time is 12 minutes and Downey said a similar service will offered to the women next summer.
Whether the helicopter, extra cash and threat of suspension will be enough to draw more of the game’s top female stars to Canada on a regular basis, Downey simply said "the proof will be in the pudding."