November 23, 2010

Event buzz limited w/o injured Williams sisters

DOHA, Qatar (AP) Nov.3 -- Tennis fans in the Gulf are used to seeing Serena and Venus Williams at the WTA Championships. Each sister won the season-ending title recently, and coming into this year's event, their images were everywhere from billboards to tournament programs. 

Both were no-shows last week, though, because of injuries. And both will also miss this weekend's Fed Cup final in San Diego between the United States and Italy. Sidelined by two operations on her right foot after getting cut by glass at a restaurant, Serena Williams hasn't played a competitive match since winning Wimbledon on July 3. Hobbled by a bad left knee, Venus Williams has only played in one tournament, the U.S. Open, since losing at the All England Club on June 29.

"The absence of the Williams sisters at any event -- be it a major or non-major -- is significant," said Jason Bernstein, a senior director in ESPN's programming department. "Fans, print and electronic media interest, TV ratings and overall buzz are all reduced." Serena has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles -- the most among active women, by far, and sixth in history -- and Venus has won seven. Despite their lack of playing time in 2010, both finished the WTA season in the top five. No other American woman is in the top 50.

Asked about not having the Williams sisters, Fernandez said: "Of course it's disappointing. The whole team was really looking forward to having both Venus and Serena on the team." The interest generated by the Williams sisters' ascension -- both have been ranked No. 1, including Serena as recently as last month -- is widely credited with the decision to move the U.S. Open women's final to prime time in 2001. Venus beat Serena that year for the championship, and nearly 23 million viewers tuned in to the CBS broadcast, giving the final the largest TV audience of any program that night, including a football game between Notre Dame and Nebraska. 

That 2001 U.S. Open final drew a 6.8 rating, and the Williams-Williams rematch the next year earned a 5.2. The only other U.S. Open women's final since 2001 with a rating higher than 2.7 came in 2008 -- the only other time a Williams reached the championship match in New York. Bernstein called the sisters "game-changers for the sport" and "compelling to watch." WTA chief executive Stacey Allaster called the Williamses "two of the most exciting and finest players we have had in our history." 

At the WTA Championships last week, the Williams' absence was hard to miss.  "I just feel sorry for Williams sisters, that they are not here," said two-time major finalist Elena Dementieva, who announced her own retirement in Doha. "With them, it's really interesting and challenging for the rest of the players." 

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