After two decades of traveling the world, the WTA Finals finally found a home in 2019.
The finals were held in Shenzhen, China for the first time. A deal was made to keep the tournament there for a further ten years.
The event was cancelled in September and will be played in Guadalajara (Mexico) on Wednesday.
The tournament has been played several times over the years under various names. It was first held at Madison Square Garden in 1979, then moved five times between 2001 and 2013. It then spent five additional years in Singapore.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament, the first time it had not been held since the finals began nearly 50 years ago, when the finals were called the Virginia Slims Championships.
With the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara taking place this year, it means that some players will be playing in one of three major tournaments.
“I personally don’t care if the location changes every year; it’s always exciting to be able to compete in the event,” said Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who qualified three times from 2015 to 2017 and is one of the eight players invited to play singles this year.
The WTA had been planning a Shenzhen return for months. Parallel discussions were held with other cities, such as Hong Kong.
“Knowing the situation was less than clear, we had a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” said Micky Lawler, the WTA president. “We wanted to give our top players a chance to compete the way they deserved to end 2021, but putting on events is really tough during a pandemic, and circumstances keep changing and are out of your control.”
The tour ended up going with Plan D, Guadalajara.
“It’s very difficult to plan an event at this scale, and they offered a great solution in a market where we already had a tournament,” Lawler said, referring to the lower-level tournament held there in March. (The No. The 46th-ranked Nadia Podoroska of Argentina was the No. 1 seed.
Lawler said that Lawler was impressed by the team who ran that tournament. “This wasn’t a situation of ‘Let’s choose between places,’” she said. “It was, ‘We don’t want a second year in a row without a WTA Finals, so let’s put all our resources together and make this work.’”
Lawler said that Steve Simon was the WTA chief executive and that the tour had regular discussions with the sponsors and players. “Everyone’s attitude was that this was not what we planned for, but they would support it because it was better than no tournament.”
While Lawler is certain that there will be challenges — she points to a sudden Covid-related lockdown that started during a recent tournament in Moscow — she is confident that they will be surmountable. Many players are eager to participate in the tournament, despite the obstacles. (The exception is Ashleigh Barty, the tour’s top-ranked player and the defending champion. To avoid another stint of quarantine after her return to Australia, she is not participating in the tournament.
Karolina Pliskova explained that reaching the WTA Finals was always a goal of hers since the season began. She is the only player, other than Muguruza, who has participated in the tournament for five consecutive years. Anett Kontaveit and Barbora Krejcikova are the newcomers to singles. Maria Sakkari, Iga Swiatek, Paula Badosa and Anett Badosa are also competing.
Pliskova is the only person to have played in Shenzhen (Singapore), Guadalajara and Guadalajara during three consecutive WTA Finals.
“It’s better for players who have never played in the tournament because if it was in the same place each year, players who had been there would know how the courts play and know all the activities and would feel more relaxed,” she said. “This year, everybody is basically starting from zero.”
Guadalajara is different from any other WTA Finals venue because of its altitude. The city is located at 5,000 feet above the sea level. This will allow the ball to fly faster, but also make it more difficult to control. It also makes it harder for players to catch their breath after long rallies.
“The altitude is a salient factor, and it came up in conversations with the players, but everyone’s in the same boat,” Lawler said, adding that it is no different from having a surface that favors certain players. “These players are the best of the best, so while some will love it less, they’re going to adjust.”
Krejcikova stated that she had never played at such an altitude before, but that it was not something she cared about. “I’m just happy to be going to the WTA Finals,” she said. “I always wanted to play against the other top players to see where my level is.”
She said she believed that larger hitters or servers might benefit from more velocity on their power shot, resulting in shorter points. But she wouldn’t decide how to adjust her game until after she practiced there.
Muguruza suggested that the altitude could be beneficial to the most skilled players. However, the increased velocity comes with a price. “It will be the ones who can control their power who will have more opportunities,” she said, because balls could easily sail long or wide.
Pliskova indicated that she might alter the tension on her strings in order to give her more control over her spin.
“I don’t want to change too much — my game is my game — but I may change a little,” she said, adding that someone who was good at defending might benefit if players could not control their shots, as long as they were in good enough condition to handle long points at that altitude.
Although the WTA hopes to return the finals to Shenzhen in 2022, there is hope that this rare visit from the game’s best players will give the sport a boost in Mexico. Heather Bowler, a spokeswoman of the International Tennis Federation, stated in an email that Mexico has the lowest ratio of players to population at the recreational and amateur levels, and the lowest percentage female players.
“Bringing an elite-level tournament, WTA Finals will drive awareness and increase an appetite for the game, so it certainly is a good basis on which to build on in the future,” she wrote, “and the WTA should be a great catalyst for sport in the region and for Mexico as a nation.”
Lawler stated that although nothing is in the works, there could be more interest and resources for young players. This would create a positive cycle. “If there is an appetite to build something in Mexico, we would do everything we can to support it,” she said.
Krejcikova said that she thought about the way girls saw the sport and the players at every tournament, but particularly when it was a new place.
“I hope we are good examples for them,” she said, “and can have a big impact on the younger generation in Mexico.”
Source: NY Times