By Giri Nathan
The top of the WTA is as effervescent as it’s been since I started writing about tennis. No tournament is a foregone conclusion, and any fan can find alluring variety in game style and persona. Last year Iga Swiatek looked as if she’d distanced herself from the rest of the pack, but her supremacy has already been fractured by the thunderous hitting of Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina. Nineteen-year-old Coco Gauff broke out on home turf at the U.S. Open, and Jessica Pegula’s perch at the top is as steady as ever. Marketa Vondrousova won Wimbledon out of nowhere and now looks to verify her long evident (if injury-stunted) talents. Ons Jabeur and Karolina Muchova are all-court sorceresses devising new shots every week. Faded contender Maria Sakkari redeemed a crappy season with a late surge. Surely a season this good deserves a worthy capstone. Instead we’re getting a queasy hangover in Cancun.
The arrival of the WTA Finals in Cancun was announced just seven weeks ago. To some this announcement came as a relief, cutting through a fog of rumors that a cash-strapped WTA couldn’t resist a lucrative Saudi bid for the tournament. And in terms of fan engagement, Mexican tennis audiences are lively. But would they turn out with such short notice? More pressing: Would they have anywhere to sit? Aryna Sabalenka’s coach Anton Dubrov posted a video on Thursday of the Finals stadium, or at least the suggestion of one; it had no tennis court on it yet, and the seating was still under construction. On Wednesday, he shared a video of the practice courts, which Sabalenka reshared. Their disdain came through in the caption: There would be only two practice courts available until Saturday, and only one stringer on site. Eight singles players and eight doubles teams, tuning up for one of the biggest events of the season, got a facility that wouldn’t sufficiently warm up a high school tennis squad.
These scenes might revive traumatic memories for fans who gawked at the ghostly non-audiences early on in last year’s WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas. Like Cancun, that was an event announced with little lead-in. There’s some knotty history that explains all this scrambling improvisation. The tour signed a 10-year contract to play the Finals in Shenzhen, China, starting in 2019. The 2020 version was nixed due to COVID-19. And then the WTA suspended all events in the country in December 2021 out of concern for Chinese player Peng Shuai, who accused a high-ranking government official of sexual assault. WTA CEO Steve Simon called for a “full and transparent” investigation into the accusations.
That investigation did not happen, and 16 months later, Simon backed down. He announced in April 2023 that the tour would resume events in China. “We’re currently convinced that the requests that we put forth are not going to be met,” he told the Times. “And, with that, to continue with the same strategy doesn’t seem to make sense, and we need a different approach.” (Perhaps the money didn’t make sense either; the Times report said Chinese events brought in about a third of the tour’s revenue in 2019.) Simon said in April that the Finals would return to Shenzhen and resume its decade-long contract. After four years of pandemic- and boycott-related absence, the WTA has indeed returned to China. There was a 250-level event in Nanchang just last week and a 500 in Zhengzhou the week before. But somehow, the most significant event in the country—the Finals in Shenzhen—did not reappear on the calendar, and the tour has not offered any public explanation for its absence. To sum up: The WTA caved on its moral stance and didn’t even get the world-class tennis venue to show for it.
Instead, the Finals will be played in a pop-up venue in Cancun. If this weren’t already rough enough treatment of the world’s best tennis players, they were also left in a scheduling bind. The WTA Finals conclude on Nov. 8 in Mexico, and the Billie Jean King Cup begins on Nov. 7 in Spain, which means that individual success has been unwittingly pitted against team success. Gauff and Pegula, America’s top duo, understandably pulled out of the BJK Cup, and Iga Swiatek won’t be competing for Poland, either. I understand that this was a messy situation with lots of variables and concessions. But how is it that the most important things—the athletes, and the spectacle of their tennis—got the shortest shrift?
Above: Coco Gauff on one of Cancun’s two—two!—practice courts this week. (Getty)