Women’s professional tennis has finally come into its own. While the short skirts still attract their fair share of fans, aesthetics now take a backseat to the explosive raw power and sheer grit of the players now carving up the tour. From sibling showdowns to über-talented teenagers, women’s tennis has served up a loyal following, especially in Toronto.
Cue the Rogers AT&T Cup. This world-class event returns to Toronto from August 9 to 17, and marks the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour’s only Canadian stop this year. If you’re looking for marquee names, they’ll all be there, including the world’s number one-seeded player Serena Williams and her big sister Venus (marking their first appearance together in Canada); perennial finalist Kim Clijsters and her Belgian compatriot, French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne; veteran champion Jennifer Capriati; fan favourite Monica Seles and current titleholder Amelie Mauresmo. In fact, 19 of the top 20 players in the world have committed to the tournament, to be held on the hard court of the National Tennis Centre at York University. Now that’s world class.
The Rogers AT&T Cup attracts the tennis elite because it is considered to be a Tier 1 event on the Sanex WTA Tour, meaning it’s one of nine tournaments one level below the four majors. The purse of $1.325 million (U.S.) doesn’t detract from the events greater appeal either. But it’s the long history and the solid organization of the tournament that elicits the respect of the WTA and the fans alike. Only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open have existed longer. And perhaps more significant, in a survey of current tour players the Rogers AT&T Cup was voted the top Tier 1 tournament. Not a shabby endorsement in itself.
The who’s who of women’s tennis have long played in Toronto, with past competitors reading like a Hall of Fame induction list: Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and the ageless Martina Navratilova, who returns to Toronto this year to compete in the doubles draw, have all scuffed up the city’s courts. Anthony Alfred, Tennis Canada’s regional director of media and public relations, offers his take on the tournament: “This tournament is not just for the players. The fans will see a world-class roster on the court, but the off-court experience is just as important.”
As in previous years, a tennis village will be set up on the grounds, seducing tennis fans with a bevy of pro-shops, souvenir stations and food tents. New this year, fans will be treated to live entertainment in the form of the Tennis Canada dance squad, who will high kick and spin their way across centre court between along with the tournament’s new mascot. And if you’re searching for family fun, August 10th is a parent’s dream. The day is free and chock full of fun events, including tennis clinics, a treasure hunt, a hip-hop dance class, face painting and fabulous prize giveaways, not to mention the on-court action.
The tournament, which rotates between Toronto and Montreal each year, set an attendance record in 2001 with more than 149,000 people passing through the turnstiles. This year, organizers are looking to increase those numbers by giving ticket holders a sneak peek of their plans for the new stadium. The state of the art facility, to be completed by next summer, will have more seating and more amenities, and organizers want to share some of those features with fans. So, the existing grandstand seating has been replaced with the new and improved-wait for it-seats with full back support. Upon completion of the new stadium, the fancy grandstand will make its way over as well. And if you’re looking for box seating, there’s certainly more of it to go around this year.
The new stadium will also provide greater opportunities for grassroots tennis in Canada. With a top-notch facility, young players can further foster their talents and hopefully, one day represent the sport at an international level. Currently, Maureen Drake is Canada’s top women’s player, ranked 122nd in the world. Faye Urban Mlacak was the last Canadian woman to win the tournament, capturing the title in 1969.
In the end, a tournament is only as good as its players, and this year’s Rogers AT&T Cup stands to benefit from its most illustrious draw yet. While the Williams sisters have raised the profile of the game, there are a number of willing and able competitors who are hungry for a taste of victory in Canada. Will Mauresmo retain her title? Will Clijsters be her usual consistent self? Will Venus and Serena play each other? These are the burning, soon-to-be-answered questions of the Rogers AT&T Cup.—Krista Peppler is a Toronto-based freelance writer and tennis enthusiast