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Troubled WTA Tour limps through '94 season

19940305

INDIAN WELLS, California (Agencies via Xinhua) - With two major stars in limbo, a third on her way out and another so dominant she has made recent tournaments a formality, women's tennis troubles did not end with conclusion of the disastrous 1993 season.

"Everyone thinks women's tennis is in trouble, but no one will admit it," said one tour official who works for Philip Morris, parent company of the tour's former major sponsors.

The new WTA Tour, formed when Kraft General Foods ended its sponsorship deal after the 1993 season, is currently searching for a major sponsor.

What is most troubling for the future of women's tennis, however, is not the unsettling sponsorship void, but a lack of competition.

As the 1994 season gets into full swing, there is little indication of when Monica Seles or Jennifer Capriati will play again and no one seems capable of challenging Steffi Graf. To make matters worse, ninetime Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova - one of the sport's biggest draws - has announced that this year will be her last.

"We really need to have Monica and Jennifer back," Graf said. "To lose them would be very difficult. There is no doubt that they are two of the biggest personalities and women's tennis misses them."

The plight of the women's tour was painfully evident at the $400,000 Evert Cup which ended here on Sunday.

Graf rolled through the event without losing a set and the stadium was never more than half full, even for the final.

The men's tour, by contrast, is thriving.

At this week's $1,720,000 Champions Cup, 14 of the top 18-ranked men are competing. The tournament is being televised every day internationally and the same stadium was two-thirds full on opening day.

"The women must act now," said one agent at International Management Group, which represents several players and owns several tour events.

"If the perception is that the tour is in trouble now, it will probably stay that way for a couple years. They need to turn things around soon, or it will snowball."

Things unravelled in 1993 for the most popular and richest women's sport in the world, offering more than $33 million a year in prize money.

The most severe blow came when Seles, then the top-ranked player in the world, was stabbed in Hamburg by a deranged fan during a match. She has not played since the April 30 attack.

Capriati, the 17-year-old American sensation, put her racket down after a disastrous first round exit at the US Open and hasn't picked it up since.

Another disruption came from Mary Pierce's father. The rising star's father had to be banned from tour events for his ugly disruptions during his daughter's matches.

While the Pierce situation has stabilized, Seles and Capriati remain question marks.

Seles' agent last month said the eight-time Grand Slam champion has no plans to return any time soon, while Capriati, who seems to have lost some of her taste for tennis, will finish high school before returning to action.

Capriati's agent said last week that she may not play another Grand Slam event until the US Open in late August.

That leaves Graf so far ahead of the field that women's tennis at the top is no longer interesting. Since Seles was sidelined, Graf has a 65-2 match record and has gone 18 consecutive matches in 1994 without dropping a set.

"She's clearly much better than everyone else," retired champion Chris Evert said of Graf last week. "I would be surprised if Steffi dropped a set anytime soon.

"Unless Martina is on a grass court or Arantxa on the clay courts, I don't see anyone out there who can beat her," Evert said.

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