Leading up to the WTA’s annual season finale, the players in competition typically aim to use their time to make final adjustments on the main court. There are numerous aspects to perfect, such as adjusting to the court’s speed, wind, and sunlight.
Unfortunately, this time around, the top eight tennis players in the world faced a less than ideal situation upon arriving in Cancún for the WTA Finals last week. The stadium was still under construction and the hard court surface had not yet been put in place. The location, a temporary structure hastily built on the premises of a high-end hotel resort, was not completed until the day before the tournament began on Saturday morning, much to the frustration of the players.
Ons Jabeur expressed disappointment that the first day of the tournament was spent practicing on the stadium. As a significant event, preparations should have been made to practice on the court. Jabeur hopes that this situation will not occur again in the future.
A minor problem on its own has become just one of many concerns this season, causing some players to lose faith in their governing body and its unprofessional shortcomings. It raises significant concerns about the leadership of the WTA as it reaches a critical moment in its existence.
The WTA had originally planned to host the 2023 WTA Finals in Mexico, but in 2018, they signed a 10-year agreement worth approximately $1 billion to have the event take place in Shenzhen from 2019 to 2028. This decision was part of the WTA’s efforts to increase their presence in China, which ultimately had negative repercussions for the organization.
After the contentious initial tournament in Shenzhen, the Covid-19 pandemic hit four months later. Since its cancellation in 2020, the WTA Finals has been held in various cities without a permanent home. The location for the 2021 tournament in Guadalajara was not determined until September of last year, and the previous year’s event in Dallas-Fort Worth only had two months of promotion, resulting in low attendance numbers.
Once again, history repeated itself this year as the tour struggled to determine the location until the very last minute. Following a widely publicized board vote during the US Open, the tour revealed on 7 September that Cancún had been chosen as the winning bid, turning down tempting proposals from Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic.
Upon discovering his loss, Tomas Petera, the individual in charge of the Czech bid, criticized the WTA. He asserted that the Czechs had put forth a much more attractive offer: a four-year agreement with $15 million in prize money and a $6 million fee to the WTA in a market that would offer both the prestige of sold-out crowds and lucrative profits. However, the WTA has decided to take on a significant financial burden in Cancún and players will only receive $9 million in prize money. There is a widespread belief that Cancún will serve as a temporary solution until next year, and there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia may be considered once again.
The uncertainty surrounding the WTA Finals during the pandemic illustrates the challenges faced by the tour. This event is a major source of income for the tour and has traditionally generated substantial revenue. However, according to publicly available records, the WTA reported a loss of just $1 million in 2019 but has since experienced losses of $16.5 million in 2020 and $15.1 million in 2021.
Due to challenging financial circumstances, the WTA has not effectively marketed the sport. WTA TV, their streaming service, regularly experiences technical difficulties and, even after six years, does not have a mobile application. In contrast, the ATP has a much larger team that engages fans with diverse social media content on and off the court, taking inspiration from Formula One. The WTA’s YouTube channel mainly features brief highlights and lacks other content. Additionally, the WTA has not shared any content on TikTok in the last three years. In the last ten years, the prize money disparity between the ATP and WTA has significantly increased.
The WTA recently announced that they would receive a $150 million investment from CVC Capital Partners, giving the private equity firm a 20% ownership in the tour. This will lead to significant changes in the tour’s structure starting next year and the creation of a new commercial branch, WTA Ventures.
The scheduling rules for players will be altered, with top players limited in participating in smaller WTA 250 events in order to increase their frequency in larger events and potentially create more memorable rivalries. Additionally, the WTA plans to invest more in marketing and aims to achieve equal prize money with the ATP within the next ten years. However, given the recent organizational problems, it is uncertain if the WTA will truly follow through with these ambitious statements.
Despite the challenges off the court, the on-court performance has been exceptional this year and the lineup for the season finale is impressive. Iga Swiatek has continued her stellar performance from last year and has had a consistent and outstanding season. Aryna Sabalenka, the top-ranked player, has also proven herself to be a formidable opponent. The final decision for the year-end No 1 ranking will be determined by their match in Mexico.
After enduring excessive excitement, Coco Gauff reached a pivotal moment at the US Open, achieving her first major tournament victory. She now joins Jabeur and Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova in Swiatek’s round-robin group, bringing diverse playing styles with Jabeur and Vondrousova adding depth to the tour.
Sabalenka’s group, meanwhile, includes Elena Rybakina, who has backed up her 2022 Wimbledon title with a stellar season, and perennial top‑10 players Jessica Pegula and Maria Sakkari. The players will battle hard on the court, of that there is no doubt, but the onus is on the WTA to build a structure around them that is worthy of their talents.