The anticlimactic year-end champs

I mean this with no disrespect to the good people of Istanbul or those who will enjoy attending the WTA Championships there in a few weeks' time. For the past two years, the tournament has been a success in terms of organization, attendance and a commodity no amount of sponsor money can buy: genuine enthusiasm.

But given how things have gone this fall, you could cancel the WTA Championships without causing a ripple of criticism in the knowing tennis crowd. The worst outcome, if that were to happen, would be for the fans who would be denied visiting Turkey for a glimpse of the internationally celebrated tennis stars.

The reasons that Istanbul will be anticlimactic are more complex than the fact that Serena Williams has already clinched the world No. 1 ranking for 2013. They go right to the heart of how the WTA stars have viewed and approached the fall tournaments, even in years like 2012, when the No. 1 ranking was determined at the WTA Championships.

Remember that episode last year? Victoria Azarenka clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking in the semifinals, then played a muted, somewhat listless match to surrender the final to Maria Sharapova. Sure, clinching the top spot was the major mission for Azarenka at the tournament. But it was glaringly obvious in the final that the result (and thus the tournament itself) was more afterthought than grail.

For the WTA, that’s what the tournament always has been, and that’s likely to change only if the players really want it to and/or when the battle for the year-end No. 1 ranking actually ends in the final match of the WTA Championships.

Take a quick look at the fall lineup: Serena Williams played her first match since winning the US Open on Sunday in Beijing. She had been entered in Tokyo but pulled out, citing general fatigue. Azarenka made her post-US Open debut in Tokyo but lost her first match to Venus Williams. She’s playing Beijing this week, but that’s it for her until the championships.

Then there’s No. 3 Sharapova, who’s been out of action since before the US Open. Even if she’s fit and eager to play the WTA Championships, she’d be sorely lacking seasoning. It’s hard to imagine her going to Istanbul now that the best she could do is play the spoiler and retain the ranking points she earned there last year. For a player like Sharapova, it’s always about just two things: Grand Slam titles and the No. 1 ranking.

The ATP has a similar problem with its World Tour Finals, even if the event is a huge hit and a hot ticket in the capital city of tennis, London. You don’t get the sense that players are falling all over themselves in the race to qualify. But at least the men are providing a livelier fall post-US Open swing than their WTA counterparts. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, counterparts to Williams and Azarenka, are each playing at least three tournaments before the WTF.

When you consider that the ATP season is weeks longer, it shows what a failure the much-ballyhooed WTA Roadmap 2010 has become. The longer offseason was just a gift to the top players.

The amazing thing is that both the ATP and WTA have been trying their darndest to up the prestige of their year-end championships for decades now without really getting over the hump. In theory, those finales provide a logical way to end the year on an up note of the kind that we had in 2000, when Gustavo Kuerten upset Andre Agassi on a hard court in Lisbon in the WTF final to clinch the No. 1 ranking for the year (nosing out Marat Safin).

But those electric moments are rare; the one the WTA hoped to produce last year fizzled in the semis, which shows you just how fully the stars need to align to produce a year-end championship that really seems to matter.

The big problem isn’t so much the championship itself. If the players embraced the idea more passionately and targeted the title more doggedly, the playoffs could develop greater resonance. But although the WTA likes to promote the "race" to Istanbul, it’s hard to get all jacked up for the event when the players seem to be moving at a slow jog.