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WTA Tour allows on-court coaching next year

NEW YORK -- Women's tennis players will be able to consult with their coaches during matches starting next year, though the WTA Tour's motivation for the move seems to be aiding fans as much as competitors.

To visit their players on court, coaches must agree to wear a microphone so television audiences can hear the conversations. The long-discussed rule change was approved by the Tour's board last week, CEO Larry Scott said Wednesday during the U.S. Open.

"It was a polarizing issue, to be sure -- a lot of potential consequences in the eyes of our players and tournaments, and that's why we took so long to really think it through," he said. "But at the end of the day, I think this step shows a real commitment from our athletes and from our sport towards innovation, being as fan-friendly as possible and being as responsive to television as possible without altering the fundamentals of the sport."

Coaches will be allowed to visit their players once per set, and only during the allotted changeover time. They can also come on court when the opponent takes a medical break. Scott said he also hopes it will discourage players from taking unnecessary medical breaks.

The on-court coaching is limited to WTA Tour events and doesn't include Grand Slams.

Scott announced several other changes to the Tour calendar and tournament structure, the culmination of a five-year effort.

The season will end in October, increasing the offseason to nine weeks from seven in hopes of reducing injuries. Total prize money will increase from $71 million this year to more than $85 million next year.

Some of the other changes attempt to address the ongoing problem of players skipping events. For the first time, top-10 players who miss any of Tour's nine top tournaments could be suspended.

But it's easy to avoid a suspension: Players must make a promotional appearance in the tournament city, either during the event or at a later date.

"Sort of the way our board's looking at it, is a player really has to want to get suspended to get suspended under this rule," Scott said.

If a suspension were to occur, it would be for two tournaments the following year. Players will be automatically penalized in their rankings and earnings for skipping big events.

One tricky situation could be the Williams sisters' avoidance of the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif. They haven't played there since 2001, when the family was booed after Venus withdrew just before a semifinal match against Serena.

They have said they plan to bypass the event again next year.

"I'm sure we can figure out things for them to do that are good for tennis in Southern California, good for the tournament, without being something that's embarrassing for them or the tournament," Scott said of the promotional appearances they'd need to make to comply with the new rule.

The Tour's four cornerstone events -- Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing -- will have equal prize money for men and women at $4.5 million. That's a big jump from this year, when the most lucrative women's tournament was Miami at $3.7 million.

The Tour also will begin revenue sharing in 2011, with prize money depending on the financial performance of tournaments.

The WTA Tour has worked with the ATP Tour to combine men's and women's events more often. At nearly half of next year's tournaments, the men and women will play at the same time or the two events will be held back-to-back.

The ATP Tour is seeking a new CEO, and Scott said he isn't interested. There has also been speculation about someday moving the two tours under the same management.

"I do think it's inevitable that at some point in time the organizations will come closer together," Scott said. "Whether that ultimately results in a merger or not is too early and too hard to predict, but I am confident that we'll continue to move in this direction. Whether there's a chance for a quantum leap on the short term rather than the long term, I don't know."