It was a city of over eight million people. It was a city without a tennis tradition.
It was the city of Li Na.
The capital of China’s Hubei province made a strong shift into the present tense as it concluded the inaugural Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open. Facing an uncertain future with earnest enthusiasm, Wuhan’s first WTA event went from a well-meaning marketing opportunity to near-disastrous cautionary tale to a perfect fit for the women’s game – and her penchant for controlled chaos – all in little over a week.
When the event was first announced, it was difficult not to be of two minds about the perceived consequences of such a decision; on the one hand, it sounded like a logical step into a largely untapped, but potentially ripe, market. On the other, the key into that market, though a late bloomer, was well into her thirties. How long could Li Na be expected to carry her home tournament? Did it even have a chance of surviving without her?
It began to feel like a bad science experiment when the former No. 2 announced her retirement days before the Wuhan Open was set to begin. It began to feel like a cruel joke when the top seeds who played in her absence – Serena Williams, Simona Halep, and Maria Sharapova – all took early losses. Announcements for newcomers on how to behave at tennis tournaments chirped on loudspeakers during changeovers, reverberating through the half-empty stadium court. For the once plucky, now seemingly hapless WTA Tour, Wuhan looked more and more like Woehan as the tournament trudged through its week-long engagement.
There are a mountain of clichés to describe what happened next, but for the sake of originality, they will be forgotten in favor of the following: Wuhan became Wimbledon. Upsets were in, yet the big names were far from out. By the penultimate round, each semifinalist came with a neat narrative package that fans and media alike could easily digest:
Elina Svitolina, the Rising Star.
Caroline Wozniacki, the Resurgent One.
Eugenie Bouchard, the Ready Ingenue.
Petra Kvitova, the Redeeming Champion.
The stadium slowly filled as the work week came to a close. Tight semifinal encounters were a prelude for a rematch of The Championships final. The tournament with no past had managed to mirror the place where it had all began.
While the fairytale came to an end for Wuhan’s Favorite Daughter, the storylines for the characters who remained carry on. Kvitova capped an autumnal turnaround from a mid-summer lull with not only her first big title since Wimbledon, but also booked a ticket to Singapore, the new site of the Year-End Championships. Bouchard staged a comeback of her own, scrapping past a tough opening round to reach her fourth career final, losing a sixth straight set to the Czech champion despite a late-match fight.
Wozniacki has been on fire for the season’s second half; though she ultimately cooled against Bouchard, the former No. 1 has reached the quarterfinals or better of six of her last seven tournaments with a mix of selective aggression and consistent competitive spirit. Finally, there was Svitolina, the Tour’s taste of the future; the young Ukrainian will rely on fan votes to join any combination of her peers for a Singapore exhibition, a dress rehearsal for the real life a Rising Star lives every week.
For a tournament like Wuhan, there is poetic justice in it getting to laugh last. Newness is Other in a sport so entrenched in traditionalism that investing in a $4 billion dollar market at the expense of a more familiar European indoor season is seen as sacrilegious. For all that went wrong, it was as if a force acting on behalf of that old guard was willing Wuhan into becoming a WTA Waterloo. That it succeeded against all odds is apropos, a microcosm of the WTA itself. It came a long way in a week; just wait a few years to see how far it goes.