By: David Kane & Victoria Chiesa
Though not offering a Grand Slam trophy, the Year-End Championships is one of the most special tournaments of the year. Open only to the season’s most successful players, the Round Robin format was adopted for the WTA edition in 2003. The Year-End Championships – along with the Tournament of Champions – are the only two events in the WTA calendar that use such a format, one that allows players multiple opportunities to reach the knockout rounds, and fans the increased chance of watching their favorites play important matches against high quality opponents. The rules for knockout round qualification, however, are what sometimes lose people. With the percentage of sets and games won over three matches breaking all round robin ties, there is a real chance that in less than 24 hours, the tournament could lose top seed and 18-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams. Though the American won two of her three round robin matches, her shocking loss to No. 4 seed Simona Halep means that No. 7 Ana Ivanovic will reach the semis should she beat the Romanian in two sets on Friday. As always, Victoria Chiesa joins me to discuss the format, its potential drawbacks, and how it functions overall.
David Kane: For whatever reason, it’s been hard for the WTA to get its Year-End Championships exactly right. After years of a 16-player draw, the singles field was reduced to eight in 2003, leading to the round robin format we see today. The number of doubles entrants were indeed doubled this year, only for the draw to remain as a standard knockout scenario. But having them side by side may serve our purposes better, as it helps to compare and contrast the two. The doubles field began later in the week, and is slowly finishing its quarterfinals so that it can finish its final alongside the singles. I can’t help but think things would be similar if the round robin format was abandoned in singles as well. The singles players have been able to play in front of packed crowds every day with little momentum lost in between. Fans who’ve attended the grounds for multiple sessions have been guaranteed to see nearly all of the Top 8 at least once, even if they’ve already lost a match along the way. Aside from the nail-biter between Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, the matches haven’t been particularly memorable, but surely that’s not an indictment against the format, correct?
Victoria Chiesa: I feel like we end up here every year. On one hand, a round robin format is great for both players and fans, because a loss in the opening match doesn’t spell the end of a player’s campaign. On the other hand, it leads, more often than not, to some messy situations. Only once in the last five years were the semifinalists decided directly by round robin win-loss records. Following Serena Williams’ opening match against Ivanovic, and the aforementioned Wozniacki win, it seemed as though this year’s event was going to move along without incident. Simona Halep had other ideas, however, and turned the tournament upside down by beating Williams with the loss of just two games. And thus, here we are again: with just over 24 hours until the semifinals are set to begin in Singapore, only one of the four players that will feature there has been confirmed.
DK: I recall the messy way in which the 2009 World Tour Finals shook out, where Juan Martin del Potro remained on court for over 20 minutes with Andy Murray to find out who of the two had qualified for the semifinals. At this point in the week, the biggest concern usually revolves around the notion of dead rubber matches, where qualified semifinalists might not give 100% to conserve energy for the finals weekend. For example, Nadia Petrova got her lone win off nemesis Sharapova at the YEC in 2005, after the latter had already qualified – and after the former had blown her chance to reach the semis in a three-set loss to Patty Schnyder, but that’s a story for another day. Halep’s situation puts her in much greater control; she can not only determine who joins her in the semifinals, but who she herself is more likely to play once she gets there. With the winner of the Red Group likely to play a big hitter in Petra Kvitova (or perhaps Sharapova, though a lot would have to go her way) it has been suggested that there is perhaps more to gain from the Romanian finishing her encounter with Ivanovic with less than seven games won, so that she might instead play likely White Group winner Wozniacki. The best players win with a plan, but there is never this much strategy involved. Is it problematic that a player have this much to deal with, or is it a bigger issue because the top seed is involved?
VC: I’ll be the first to admit that it might seem a little odd to see Williams, the defending champion, eliminated despite holding a 2-1 record. However, at the end of the day, each player is responsible for her own fate in this format, and judging by Ivanovic’s comments, they’re well aware of how important sets, and even games, are. Halep has a lot in her hands tomorrow – she can essentially decide the semifinal draw on her own. It’s a double-edged sword for Halep, though. There are extra ranking points – and prize money – to be earned with a 3-0 record, but she also doesn’t want to risk overexerting herself when she already knows she’s in the mix. After all, with GREAT POWER comes GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.
DK: And so began the adventures of The Amazing #Spidermona. Seriously, though, much of the talk ultimately relies on numerous assumptions. One, that a player who beat Serena Williams 6-0, 6-2 doesn’t now believe she can beat anyone put in front of her. Two, that a player like Ivanovic, who has had her best season in six years, couldn’t beat Halep in straight sets on her own merit. Three, that any of this somehow makes the last major week of the season less entertaining. Halep’s reputation for conserving energy for the best matches has helped her be ready to hit the ground running at an event like this, but it is quickly brought up now that she’s in a similar position in Singapore. The Romanian has acknowledged the wrap on her leg, deeming it a precautionary measure and declaring herself pain-free. But it’s hard to imagine anything other than a backlash against the otherwise unassuming Halep if she fails to take a set from the surging Serb.
VC: Let’s not forget that this is an interesting situation for Ivanovic as well. She was near tears in her loss to Williams on opening day, but she’s right in the middle of this semifinal race. The Serb has not exactly been the most mentally sound over the course of her career, and it’ll be intriguing to see how she responds. She could play the kind of match that takes it completely out of Halep’s hands, for better or for worse.
Regardless of what happens, it’s conversations like this that make the year-end championships so much fun. The round robin format makes the WTA and ATP World Tour Finals are completely different than any other tournaments on the tennis calendar, and there’s something to be said for that. Sure, qualification scenarios might force me to revisit 12th grade calculus, but that’s part of the charm. The knockout format is so straightforward.
DK: Set and game winning percentages really do bother people; the math appears to make the results less cut and dry than the tennis world is used to. Perhaps if round robin head-to-heads were the preliminary tiebreaker – which would mean Williams would be automatically through, having beaten Ivanovic – it could make things simpler. But then that would render Friday’s matches unimportant exhibitions. Though this situation is complicated, but it serves a purpose. Every match has counted, down to the very end. The tennis world is on the edge of its seat waiting for the semifinal draw to come together, and the format allows that to happen.
What do you think of the round robin format at the Year-End Championships? Would you like to see it at other tournaments throughout the year? Sound off in the comments!