The WTA Finals - so much possibility, so many challenges (2024)

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At some point the WTA Finals will once again become a fully-formed, signature stop on the professional women’s tennis tour.

There will be a set location (Saudi Arabia has pushed hard for it) that the tour will go to year after year, rather than one-off destinations cobbled together at the last minute — like Cancun, Mexico, the site of this year’s competition, chosen less than two months ago.


There might be effective coordination with the International Tennis Federation, so top players (Iga Swiatek, Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff) do not feel the need to choose between this event and the Billie Jean King Cup, the premier national team competition that starts an ocean away in Seville, Spain, less than 48 hours after the last match of the finals.

The champions might even become a bit less random, reverting to the days when Serena Williams was winning this event every year, giving the finals’ reputation additional heft.

Though a multi-Grand Slam winner like Swiatek could claim the title for the first time this year; for now, the elite competition exists as something of a metaphor for the state of women’s tennis itself. There is so much promise and possibility, so much quality and variety, but it has been hamstrung lately by bad luck, questionable decision-making, and the stunted careers of some of the sport’s biggest stars.

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Swiatek in Cancun on October 25 (Photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Those factors, people inside the sport say, have made it far more challenging for the tour to establish the event — which starts Sunday and features only the year’s top eight players and doubles teams — the way the men’s tour has for its season-ending competition.

“Tennis fans travel to big events but if you don’t give people a chance by giving them lead time there is not much you can do,” said Ken Solomon, the chief executive of The Tennis Channel, the event’s U.S. television partner, who is tired of showing matches with empty stands. “This is elemental, and this is not just about the finals. This is about the continuing challenges the tour faces.”

In an interview Friday, Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said the tour was happy to have landed in a temporary, 4,000-seat stadium beside the turquoise waters off the Yucatan Peninsula, but it certainly was not where he expected to be. The organization, he said, had four months to find a venue and didn’t want to rush into a long-term agreement.

“WTA tennis is very popular here in Latin America and Mexico,” he said. “It’ll be a very good atmosphere as all of our events have been here.”

David Witt, Pegula’s coach, said everyone was hoping for a good crowd, which “can really help the players. Last year the crowd wasn’t the greatest,” Witt said of what was a disappointing turnout for the event in Fort Worth, Tex.

Time will tell on that. Earlier this week, plenty of seats remained at the Paradisus Stadium, where tickets begin at about $70.

The WTA Finals has suffered from some circ*mstances beyond its control lately.

There was a pandemic that caused the WTA Tour to cancel the finals in 2020 and move it to Guadalajara, Mexico for 2021 because China, which was supposed to host the competition in Shenzhen for 10 years, wasn’t letting anyone into the country.

Then after the former doubles star Peng Shuai accused a former top Chinese government official on social media of sexually assaulting her, Simon announced the WTA would suspend its business in China until the Chinese government conducted an investigation and allowed direct contact with Peng.

When it didn’t, the WTA moved the 2022 finals to Fort Worth, Texas. But even as the WTA ended its unsuccessful boycott and renewed operations in China, the Chinese effectively terminated the deal for the Tour Finals. And in September, the WTA announced yet another one-year deal.

Simon said the organization is in the process of finalizing a multiyear deal for the event that he hopes to announce by the end of the year so the competition can return to something approaching “normalcy”.

“We haven’t seen that for a while, for sure,” he said.

Pandemic and geopolitics aside, women’s tennis has also lost some of its biggest stars either permanently or for career-altering stretches in recent years.


In addition to the sunsetting of Serena Williams’ epic career, Ash Barty, the popular Australian, retired last year at 25 while holding the No 1 ranking. Naomi Osaka, a worldwide star and four-time Grand Slam champion, has barely played the past three seasons after saying she had suffered “long bouts of depression” after winning the U.S. Open in 2018, and giving birth to her first child. Bianca Andreescu of Canada, another budding star who won the U.S. Open in 2019 at 19, has suffered injury after injury.

With $9million (£7.4m) in prize money on the line at the WTA Finals, that has left the burden of filling the void — and selling those tickets — to the shoulders of a new generation of standouts, namely Gauff, the 19-year-old budding American superstar who won her first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in September.

As he made his way to the airport to catch a flight to Cancun earlier this week, Brad Gilbert, Gauff’s co-coach, zipped through what made the Tour Finals different from all other tournaments. This was his maiden trip to the WTA Finals as a coach, but he played in three ATP Finals at Madison Square Garden and coached both Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick through that event multiple times.

He said success at the event, where the players are divided into two groups of four for round-robin play, with the top two in each group advancing to the semi-finals, requires some brain acrobatics after a year of lose-and-you’re-out tournaments.

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Gilbert coaching Gauff in Cancun this week (Photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Making the finals is a top goal for any player. Getting there is a massive reward for a year of consistency. But first-timers can succumb to being satisfied with entry into the elite and not prepare adequately for a competition devoid of any cupcake matches. Gauff went 0-3 in both singles and doubles last year in her debut at the event.

Also, it’s best to approach the finals like it’s single-elimination, Gilbert said, because players who lose their first matches are often in trouble. But when a loss does happen, the competition becomes the ultimate test of perhaps the most important quality of any player: having a short memory and moving on quickly from a bad point, set or match. There isn’t a week, or even two, to reset, but less than 48 hours.

“The second time you make it you often have a different mindset,” Gilbert added.


That’s where Pegula finds herself. Last year, in her finals debut, Pegula showed up out of gas, after playing more than 100 singles and doubles matches in a season. “Running on empty,” as she put it in an interview Thursday.

Part of her was just happy to be there. Then she got sick and lost all six matches, a cruel and strange way to end the best season she’d ever had. Tennis players generally only lose once a week, or twice if they are also playing doubles.

This year she has factored recovery ahead of the finals into her scheduling. “I’m ready and wanting to win matches,” she said.

Pegula, the world No 1 in doubles and No 5 in singles, is the sort of player who can thrive in an event that often isn’t simply a coronation for the world’s top player. Caroline Garcia of France won last year at the end of a season dominated by Swiatek. Garbine Muguruza won in 2021 after not making it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam all year. Her record since then is 12-21, and she has been on a self-imposed hiatus since February.

Dominika Cibulkova took the title in 2017. The next year, Caroline Wozniacki, who had yet to win her lone Grand Slam title, won the event.

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Wozniacki won in 2017 (Photo: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who retired to the television broadcast booth and coaching box earlier this year, said the tournament is often less about who is the best player and more about who has the most gas left in the tank. Because of that, a dominant season, like Swiatek’s in 2022, can be a disadvantage.

Swiatek had played 72 singles matches last year before the finals, winning 37 in a row at one point, plus two Grand Slam championships. She hit the wall in the semi-finals against Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who had played just 54.

“I look for someone who hasn’t spent all their eggs,” Petkovic said.

Witt said Pegula was a victim of her success last year, unexpectedly winning five matches and a title at high altitude in Guadalajara in mid-October.


“You want to come out on fire and set a tone,” Witt said.

Petkovic actually likes Swiatek’s chances this year. Swiatek has played 75 matches and lost the No 1 ranking to Sabalenka but her schedule has been relatively light the past two months.

She lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, then played just two matches at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo before winning five in a row to take the China Open in Beijing on October 8. She has not played since.

(Top photo: Last year’s champion Caroline Garcia. Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

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Matthew Futterman is an award-winning veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.”Before coming to The Athletic in 2023, he worked for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is currently writing a book about tennis, "The Cruelest Game: Agony, Ecstasy and Near Death Experiences on the Pro Tennis Tour," to be published by Doubleday in 2026. Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattfutterman

The WTA Finals - so much possibility, so many challenges (2024)
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