The world’s top female tennis players have touched down in Singapore for this year’s season-ending WTA Finals and, not for the first time, much of the pre-tournament talk concerns those who aren't there as much as those who are.
Serena Williams’ decision on Monday to pull out of the event for the second straight year due to injury will have come as a major blow to the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). A five-time winner of the tour’s showpiece season climax, Williams remains by far the biggest draw in women’s tennis, even if, at 35, she has grown increasingly selective when it comes to tournament participation, playing just eight events this year. Maria Sharapova, meanwhile, remains sidelined owing to her much-publicised doping ban, while other established names like Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams are also notable absentees.
The absence of these leading figures has left a largely unheralded field competing for this season's year-end title and the winner’s share of a US$7 million prize purse. Angelique Kerber, the new world number one, will be joined in Singapore by defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Dominika Cibulkova, Madison Keys, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. It is a group that has qualified on merit given their respective stellar seasons, of course, but it is nevertheless one which few could have predicted at the start of the year.
“If you look at the current situation, what you’ve seen on the WTA Tour, both this year and in 2015, is that there is this constant and very palpable move by a younger generation to try and break through what has been a good five-year dominance of Serena Williams,” says Courtney Nguyen, an analyst and senior writer for WTA Insider, the tour’s in-house editorial team. “For so long, we’ve been used to this tour being dominated by two or three names in Serena, Maria and Venus. I mean, we know them by their first names, which says a lot right there.”
While that star trio boasts a combined 34 major titles - Serena alone has 22 - the eight players vying for this year’s Finals crown share five between them. Tellingly, three of those championships was won this season - Germany’s Kerber claimed the Australian and US Opens on her way to usurping Williams and guaranteeing her position as the year-end number one, while Spain’s Muguruza, a Wimbledon finalist in 2015, won her maiden Grand Slam on the clay of Roland Garros.
Together, these breakthrough acts have contributed to a generational shift at the upper echelons of the women’s game, ensuring that this week’s Finals will serve as both a measure of the WTA's current best talent and a sneak peek of the tour's future beyond the reign of the formidable yet fading Williams.
“What we’re seeing now is that the youngsters are starting to earn the spotlight as opposed to where there was sometimes a feeling that you had to force the spotlight on them to make sure they weren't forgotten,” says Nguyen. “Now, they’ve got the results and they’ve backed it up, making the moves up the rankings.”
Aware that the mainstream media will naturally gravitate towards the established names, the WTA has long sought to bring its younger generation into the wider consciousness. Its Rising Stars initiative, for instance, has provided a platform on which to highlight the personal stories and achievements of those emerging under-23 year olds who are tipped as future top ten players. In 2014, the initiative spawned the Rising Stars Invitational, an exhibition event which invites fans to vote for four up-and-coming players to compete alongside the elite eight during Finals week, while a separate tournament called WTA Future Stars has been set up specifically for Asia-Pacific’s top under-14 and under-16 junior girl players.
This focus on youth defined the tenure of Stacey Allaster, the WTA’s former chairman and chief executive who stepped down last October, and it continues today under her successor, Steve Simon. When he replaced Allaster a year ago, Simon came into the role promising a top-to-bottom review of the entire WTA organisation and during his first full year at the helm, the American has set about doing just that, initiating a major overhaul of the tour’s tournament structure and schedule whilst bringing to fruition radical changes in the areas of broadcast and digital.
“While I do not believe in change for the sake of change, a successful business has to evolve."
From 2017, the tour’s new media and production arm, WTA Media, will produce more tournament matches - at least 2,000 each year - for television than ever before. Established under a joint venture with Perform Group in 2015, the unit is working to dramatically increase the tour’s worldwide media exposure as part of a wider plan to transform the WTA into a content-led, all-access digital business.
“While I do not believe in change for the sake of change, a successful business has to evolve,” Simon told SportsPro late last year, setting out his stall in what was his first feature interview after taking the WTA’s top job. “If you’re going to be competitive and you’re going to be successful in the quickly evolving and impatient world we live in today, then you’re going to need to be nimble and to evolve.”
To that end, Simon has pledged further changes as he continues to implement his vision for the future of women’s tennis. The specifics of his grand design are set to be made public in the coming weeks but on the calendar front, the former Indian Wells tournament director is said to be eyeing a clearer, less cluttered structure similar to that of the ATP, whose successful Masters Series concept knits together top-category tournaments into a coherent year-long narrative. At present, the WTA Tour includes just four top-level Premier Mandatory events whereas the ATP’s elite category contains a total of nine Masters tournaments throughout the year.
“What I want to try to do is to clean up and create a better definition of what our tournaments are,” Simon explained last month. “I think there’s a lot of confusion out there with respect to the differentiation of what type of event are you watching; what level of the event, and what is its relevance on the tour? And I think we have to better define that.
"And I also like to create a higher amount of events in which we deliver what I consider our premium product. I don’t think we provide it on enough frequency out there.”
Simon is also reportedly keen on shortening matches, possibly by tweaking the tour’s current scoring and format. The plan is mooted in part to cater to changing consumption habits and dwindling attention spans, but it is also intended to benefit the players, many of whom are showing signs of struggling to deal with the rigours of an increasingly crowded and internationalised tour. A recent rise in injuries and tournament retirements, particularly towards the end of the season, is a worrying trend for the WTA and its tournament promoters, not least since its biggest draw has curtailed her season citing injuries and burnout in each of the past two seasons.
Indeed, Williams’ absence from a second successive late-season Asian swing and year-end Finals is a stark reminder of the extent to which the players are integral to the WTA’s product. Without them, there would be no drama and no spectacle. And without the presence of the big names in particular, tournament promoters have their work cut out to pull in the fans. While the likes of Williams and Sharapova are capable of drawing large crowds to venues around the world, players without their profile and popularity will always be a tougher sell.
“Obviously you want your breakout stars,” says Nguyen. “What sport would turn away a player who can appear just as easily on the cover of Sports Illustrated as on the cover of Vanity Fair? You would take that in a heartbeat.
“But it’s always going to be healthier, especially in a women’s sport, when you have depth of competition because, at the end of the day, and maybe I’m naive on this, its still about forehands and backhands. Its about wins and losses and its about the titles that you win and lose and its about the product that you put on the court between those four lines. For that to happen, you want to see your number one and number two battling it out. You want to see tight, close matches, you want to see high quality tennis and high competition.”
Last year's year-end crown was won by Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska.
One only has to look at the men’s ATP World Tour to see how a period of dominance by a single player or a select group can be a positive thing, creating those compelling rivalries between the best players that fans want to see. But when that dominance tips over to the point of predictability, the entire product is in danger of suffering.
The WTA has, to some extent, felt this first hand. At times in recent years, Williams’ superiority was so pronounced that her name was all but carved on the champion’s trophy before tournaments began. But such dominance, says Nguyen, is almost as unhealthy for the competition as having no big names competing whatsoever.
“What you want to do as a business, I think, is you want to put out a consistent, reliable product, so that you can then tell your advertisers, tell your sponsors, tell your partners, ‘this is what you get and we can deliver proper value to that’,” she continues.
“To that end, having consistent players, a relatively consistent top ten, a cadre of players who stay up there, fans get to know them, tournaments get to know them, you build relationships with these top players, then that will sell tickets and that will retain interest, versus a highly fluctuating top ten. That’s something that becomes difficult to get behind for most people, for the mass audience.”
But there is, as ever, a balance to be struck. Household names are not made overnight, just as great champions cannot be manufactured out of nothing. Building relationships takes time in any sport, and while the WTA is, by definition, a member organisation established to serve each and every one of its players, the tour must be careful not to overhype unproven talent that might then fail to live up to expectations.
“You have to win, and then the attention comes,” says Nguyen. “That, for me, is the way that I want to see it. Tennis is a cruel sport in that it’s a kind of ‘eat what you kill’ system. When you provide too much attention, when the results aren't there, it becomes a bit toxic, and I don't like to see that. What I’ve seen in 2016 is that all the youngsters are actually earning the attention that they’re getting, so it feels more balanced.”
For the WTA, then, this week’s Finals will serve as a celebration of a youthful future that has, in many ways, already arrived. All that remains is for the tour’s new wave of talent to keep doing the business on the court.