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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Where, oh where, are the WTA Finals?

An aerial view of Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico on Nov. 15, 2020. The cost of the tournament, including $9 million in total prize money, is to be divided among the WTA, the promoters and the state of Quintana Roo. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)

By Cindy Shmerler

It was early September, and Iga Swiatek had no idea where her season would end.

For the third year in a row, the WTA Finals were in limbo through the start of the U.S. Open.

“For sure, it’s pretty unfortunate and annoying we don’t have any decision yet,” Swiatek said in late August, shortly before the WTA announced that Cancún, Mexico, would host this year’s championship for the world’s top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams. “We, as players, are not involved in all of the discussions.”

Professional tennis players are highly structured athletes who plan their schedules months, sometimes years, in advance. Because the WTA Tour competes in nearly 30 countries across six continents with barely an offseason, the women spend much of their lives on the road, crisscrossing time zones and navigating their complicated travel. Knowing when and where they are going to compete is essential to their well-being and injury prevention.

In 2019, the WTA began what it thought was to be a 10-year deal for the Finals to be held in Shenzhen, China. When COVID-19 hit the country was shut down. Then, when Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, said the tour would not return to China until it could establish the safety and whereabouts of former player Peng Shuai, who had disappeared after accusing a high-ranking government official of sexual abuse, the situation became precarious. Peng eventually resurfaced and retracted her claims of abuse.

Now the deal is officially dead. The big question is, will it move to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and, if so, when?

The WTA board supported a move for this year, but it was scuttled before the announcement was made. Simon then traveled to Riyadh during the tour’s China swing earlier this month to work out details. But then war broke out in the Middle East, delaying an announcement.

While the men’s ATP Tour is playing its Next Gen ATP Finals in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, starting at the end of November, there has been dissension among the women. Many current players, including Jessica Pegula, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur, are willing to go.

“Unfortunately, a lot of places don’t pay women a lot of money and, like a lot of women’s sports, we don’t have the luxury to say no to some things,” Pegula, a member of the WTA Players’ Council, said during the U.S. Open.

“I think if the money was right and the arrangement was something that we could get behind, where we could go and create change, then I would be OK playing there,” she added.

Maria Sakkari said she thought players needed to be more open-minded. “If the WTA can help women there move forward, then it’s a win for both of us,” she said by phone two weeks ago.

Some former players don’t agree.

“Why would the leading sport for women go to a country with such a poor track record for women’s rights?” Pam Shriver, a 10-time WTA Finals doubles winner with Martina Navratilova, said by phone. “They’re compromising a payout with core values.”

Navratilova wants to see progress before play.

“I’m all for opening up a dialogue,” Navratilova, also an eight-time WTA Finals singles champion, said by phone. “But I need to see a commitment to women. I want to know their goals and their education plans. You can’t just go in good faith. If they’re just going for money, it’s a big mistake. The WTA will lose credibility for looking the other way and ignoring Saudi’s human rights violations.”

Sabalenka and Jabeur are scheduled to join Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz in an exhibition in Saudi Arabia called the Riyadh Season Tennis Cup in December. They will play at Kingdom Arena, which has a seating capacity of about 40,000.

By comparison, the WTA Finals will be played in a 4,300-seat temporary stadium in Quintana Roo. The venue, on the grounds of the Paradisus Cancún hotel, will also feature two on-site practice courts for the players. Operational costs are estimated to be $6 million, which includes building the stadium. The cost, including $9 million in total prize money, is to be divided among the WTA, the promoters and the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancún is.

“Staging the WTA Finals in Cancún was one we could meet and tick off lots of boxes,” said Fabrice Chouquet, a director of the tournament. “The culture, the fans, giving players from around the world the opportunity to be in Mexico, where we have great weather and good conditions to host the event and vibrant hospitality because that’s also the signature of Mexico.”

Two years ago, the Finals were held in nearby Guadalajara and won by Garbiñe Muguruza. Last year, after much delay in announcing the venue, the event was moved to the 14,000-seat Dickies arena in Fort Worth, Texas, which experienced a dearth of attendance until the final weekend. Caroline Garcia won the title.

For more than 20 years from 1979-2000, the year-end championships were played at Madison Square Garden in New York and routinely attracted more than 15,000 fans.

This year, total prize money for singles and doubles will be $9 million. If the champion goes undefeated in round-robin play, she will pocket $3 million.

This year’s singles competitors include Australian Open champion Sabalenka, French Open winner Swiatek, U.S. Open champ Coco Gauff, Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova, Elena Rybakina, Pegula, Jabeur and Sakkari. Karolina Muchova was the eighth qualifier, but she was forced to withdraw last week because of a wrist injury, allowing room for Sakkari.

Sabalenka, Swiatek and Sakkari are playing for the third straight year, while Pegula, Gauff and Jabeur are second-year competitors. Rybakina and Vondrousova are making their Finals debut this year.

One other issue facing the WTA Finals this year is its proximity to the Billie Jean King Cup, the international team competition for women, which begins in Seville, Spain, just two days after the end of the Finals in Cancún. Pegula, Gauff and Swiatek have declined to play in the King Cup. It is the second year that the two signature events have conflicted.

Regardless of scheduling difficulties, travel headaches and the politics involved in choosing tournament sites, players who qualify for the WTA Finals relish the opportunity to compete.

“I always felt that it was a celebration, a reward for a great season,” said Sakkari, who reached the semifinals last year with wins over Sabalenka, Pegula and Jabeur. “It’s huge. There are just seven other players there, and you’re playing against the best of the best. That’s very unique.”

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