In her infinite benevolence – and desire to expand the WTA Finals – Women’s Tennis Association President Stacey Allaster plans to debut a Rising Stars Invitational to take place during the Tour’s annual Year-End Championships. The Invitational aims to feature up-and-coming talent and a viral marketing aspect, opening the selection process up to a public vote, where two performers from Asia-Pacific and two more from the aptly named “Rest of the World” will be sent to Singapore.
A hitherto unseen innovation, the Invitational’s development has been interesting, to say the least. To give a special spotlight to the region hosting the Finals, the requirements were broadened so that Asia-Pacific players need only have won one main draw WTA match, or have reached a WTA 125K final (besides the overarching age restriction of 23 and under). “The Rest of the World” were held to stricter guidelines, with each nominee having made at least one WTA Tour semifinal if not currently ranked in the world’s Top 50. The latter category is stacked with recognizable names, where the former includes players like Hiroko Kuwata and Nicha Lertpitaksinchai.
Per SI Tennis‘ Courtney Nguyen, Australia’s Olivia Rogowska and China’s Zheng Saisai lead the collection of AP players, while Americans Monica Puig and Christina McHale are the front-runners representing the ROTW. The WTA Finals website promises to send the fan-selected Stars to Singapore, but has interceded when polls have gone awry in the past. In June, Romania’s Simona Halep won May’s Player of the Month Poll in a landslide, leading French Open champion Maria Sharapova with an almost comical 95% of the vote, only for the crown to go to the Russian based on her superior resume.
With less than a day before voting ends, some of the poll’s leading players have earned derision for their very inclusion. Rogowska, for example, is best known for her 2009 US Open epic against then-No. 1 Dinara Safina. The evidently ageless Aussie has largely relied on reciprocal wild cards to play the sport’s biggest tournaments, winning only three Grand Slam main draw matches in the last five years. Both Puig and McHale are respectable players with solid potential, yet lead the poll at the expense of this year’s US Open quarterfinalist Belinda Bencic. The young Swiss upset 2008 finalist Jelena Jankovic to reach the last eight, but trails in the poll despite her credentials and her own efforts to sway the vote.
The Twitterverse broke into discussion when today’s update hit the web, with many wondering the same thing: what is a “Rising Star?” Is that a quantifiable epithet? Is it even something that can be discerned by such broad restrictions? It would appear that, like the WTA’s last attempt to feature young talent with its Tier II YEC, the Tournament of Champions, its demographic outgrew the idea before it came to fruition. When the ToC was first announced in 2008, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka were both teenagers ranked outside the Top 10. By the time the event was underway in Bali less than a year later, both had soared into the Top 8 and were busy playing the “real thing” in Doha. The same could be said for Eugenie Bouchard and Halep, who retain the “Rising Star” moniker despite having largely “risen.” Neither were the prospects that they’ve become when this idea was dreamt up, forcing the WTA to scramble and come up with a comparatively more unique band of “stars in progress.”
Women’s tennis is trying to grow, and with its present coterie of stars aging towards the exit, it’s a wise plan to attempt to feature the future in the present. I fear, however, that execution might once again undermine an otherwise interesting concept.