by Alex Macpherson
It’s now six years — and two formats — since the WTA first started trying to make an alternative year-end championships happen. But while the intentions are laudable, the results still resemble what would happen if a grown-up Gretchen Wieners was tasked with a corporate rebranding exercise: vacuous buzzwords slapped on brand new concepts that no one was asking for but which, we are promised, will be foisted on fans for at least another half-decade.
“Tournament of Champions,” “Elite Trophy”: even the event’s names sound randomly generated from a pot of words with impressive connotations. In true corporate tradition, they obscure more than they give away — the Tournament of Champions pitted the winners of the WTA’s “least important” events against each other, and now Zhuhai’s WTA Elite Trophy brings together not the WTA’s actual elite but the 12 players just beneath them.
To be fair to Zhuhai, the tournament pulled in crowds in an impressive-looking stadium all week, as Venus Williams’ presence and eventual win lent it an unexpected shot of credibility — not to mention most of its few memorable matches. But it was impossible to ignore some of its all-too-predictable failures. Seven qualified players didn’t even bother making the journey, with Timea Bacsinszky, Belinda Bencic, Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka, Ekaterina Makarova, Samantha Stosur and would-be alternate Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova crying off with injury or Fed Cup exemptions. At a stroke, the event lost its putative top seed, two former No. 1’s and the youngest player in the top 50 — some of its biggest drawing cards.
It didn’t get much better with the players who did show up.
Caroline Wozniacki injured her finger in a freak bread knife accident and retired against Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Andrea Petkovic and her dodgy knee were double bagelled by Carla Suárez Navarro.
Thoughtless scheduling culminated in a final round robin day in which two out of three matches were meaningless, as ably demonstrated by already-through-to-the-semifinals Roberta Vinci’s 1-6, 0-6 effort against No. 28th-ranked alternate Anna Karolina Schmiedlova.
Local wild card Zheng Saisai played one great set against Williams, but otherwise confused everyone as to why a player ranked No. 75 with a mediocre 9-20 win-loss record at WTA level in 2015 should be collecting 40 points per loss in a supposedly “elite” event. Talking of points, the title was deemed worthy of 700 points — almost as much as a Grand Slam semi-final (780 points) and more than a Premier Mandatory final (650 points).
This for four matches and a guarantee of no Top 8 opponents.
Maybe this was a step up from the late, unlamented Tournament of Champions, its random fields (any seasoned WTA watcher would have known International-level events tend to be won by veteran journeywomen and slumming top players rather than new faces) and its shameless awarding of wild cards based on looks (what could Sabine Lisicki, Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Kirilenko possibly have in common?) — but not by much.
In any case, all of this was foreshadowed by tennis oracle Agnieszka Radwanska, who argued in an October post-match press conference at the China Open that “the smaller Masters, […] or I don’t know how you can call it” should be neither mandatory nor worth such a truckload of points. As Radwanska correctly implied, this ranking range targets players who spend the autumn swing busting a gut to make the real WTA Finals. It was no wonder that so many were too physically or mentally fried to put in a good showing in Zhuhai.
After all, what would their motivation be?
The actual WTA Finals is also full of tired players — but every year, they dig deep to produce great tennis in pursuit of a prestigious title, probably only behind the Grand Slams in terms of importance. But you can’t manufacture prestige, no matter how many “elite” buzzwords you throw around. The “Elite Trophy” always had the feel of a consolation prize, rather like the draws for first-round losers at U14 level. That several top 20 players preferred to lick their wounds at home rather than fight for scraps was, again, no surprise.
The idea of prestige should underpin any alternate year-end championships event — but it’s this that the WTA seems to have struggled to grasp. Neither the Tournament of Champions nor the Elite Trophy possess any greater prestige than, for example, the Tier IV tournament in Pattaya that ran concurrently with the WTA Finals from 1995-2003 — a popular event that regularly attracted top 20 players who wanted to wind down their seasons with a relaxing tournament in a tropical beach setting.
What’s especially frustrating is that several innovative and potentially prestigious year-end concepts are staring the WTA in the face.
Competition for its own prizes, for example: the WTA awards Newcomer of the Year and Most Improved accolades annually, but the decision-making process behind them remains opaque and often controversial.
Why not invite the candidates to play off against each other — with the winner taking the official honor?
For Newcomer of the Year, this field would involve all the players who have broken the top 100 (and stuck around): 2015’s results would have given us a 12-woman line-up of Daria Gavrilova, Danka Kovinic, Denisa Allertova, Margarita Gasparyan, Daria Kasatkina, Nao Hibino, Jelena Ostapenko, Magda Linette, Anett Kontaveit, Laura Siegemund, Andreea Mitu and Elizaveta Kulichkova. With two first-time title-winners, four first-time finalists and two first-time Gland Slam second-weekers, that’s a fascinating field by any standards. Not to mention the diversity in terms of geography, age and playing style — from the 2014 Australian Open and Wimbledon junior champions (Kulichkova and Ostapenko) to 27-year-old serve-volleying, part-time student Siegemund to Gasparyan, one of the few holding it down for the single-handed backhand.
But the most obvious path would be a showcase for the tour’s Rising Stars. This is an idea the WTA has half-realized, but utterly botched by manifesting it as a sideshow exhibition to the WTA Finals. It featured a nonsensical field assembled via a fan vote — an established Top 50 player who has been in the Top 100 for three years, Caroline Garcia; two 21-year-olds, Ons Jabeur and Zhu Lin, who have never made the Top 100 and, in fact, tumbled down the rankings in 2015; and a 17-year-old barely-rookie, Naomi Osaka, who has only competed in four WTA-level main draws in her life. It was played to nonsensical first-to-four games scoring, which made it look as though the competitors were too young to cope with full sets.
It’s mystifying that the WTA got to the stage of thinking up a tournament for up-and-comers but didn’t go the logical step further to make it a proper event for points, with a field determined by ranking. Inviting the Top 8 highest-ranked teenagers would have resulted in a field of Bencic, Ana Konjuh, Daria Kasatkina, Jelena Ostapenko, Anett Kontaveit, Katerina Siniakova, Elizaveta Kulichkova and Donna Vekic.
What could be better than a group of talented, hungry young talents at the start of what look like long WTA careers fighting for bragging rights to be their generation’s leader?
These are also players that elicit curiosity among the public: all have had a few eye-catching results, but most haven’t played at WTA level long enough to be familiar yet. Unlike the bizarre “popularity contest” angle of the Singapore Rising Stars exhibition, determining the field by ranking would ensure that all participants had earned their place — mirroring the real WTA Finals.
There should be a lot of mileage in putting together an alternative finale event — one that works alongside the real thing — but instead of being a lesser version, it has its own different purpose. It’s just a shame that on its second go, the WTA has again fallen at the first hurdle.