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Five thoughts on WTA schedule changes

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Li Na

The WTA hopes the success of Li Na and other Chinese players helps expand its popularity in China. (Rob Griffith/AP)

The WTA updated its 2013 calendar and made significant changes for 2014, when the tour will solidify its push into Chinese markets with two new tournaments, as well as a new event in Rio de Janiero. The tour also announced a 10 percent increase in prize money this year, from $53.3 million to $58.7 million, not including the Grand Slams.

Five thoughts on the announcement:

1. Is the WTA relying too much on Li Na? The WTA has made no secrets about its desire to tap the Chinese market, establishing a Beijing office in 2008 and upgrading the Beijing tournament to Premier status in 2009. It hit the jackpot in 2011, when Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a Slam, capturing the French Open. With that, the doors to the Chinese market swung open. The tour continued its expansion this year with a new event in Shenzhen, won by Li, and it will continue its expansion in 2014.

The Toray Pan Pacific Open will end its 30-year run in Tokyo and relocate next year to Wuhan, China, Li’s hometown. Wuhan will retain the tournament’s Premier 5 status, promising seven of the year-end top 10-ranked players competing for over $2 million. The end of the Tokyo tournament, which spent years as the WTA’s primary outpost in Asia, is illustrative of the global seachange. With the relocation, Japan will only have one tournament on the calendar, an International-level event in Osaka.

In addition to the new tournament in Wuhan, the WTA will relocate the International tournament in Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, marking the first time a tournament will be held there since 1993. But we’re not done yet. This year the WTA adds three $125,000 tournaments in China, in Suzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing. On the whole, the changes mean five of the 18 tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region will be held in China, and three of the six WTA 125 tournaments will also be in China.

The immediate question is whether the larger tournaments are sustainable without Li’s involvement. Obviously the commitments from other high-profile players such as Maria Sharapova are important — don’t count on Serena Williams, who hasn’t played in Asia since 2009 — but Li’s the one they need on board. Just a year ago the 31-year-old was adamant that her days on tour were numbered, that she did not see herself on tour by the 2016 Olympics. Her new partnership with Carlos Rodriguez has infused her with renewed energy and purpose, perhaps issuing a stay on her thoughts of leaving the sport sooner rather than later.

2. Renewed focus on South America. The WTA will debut two tournaments in South America over the next two years, beginning with an International event in Florianopolis, Brazil, this year, followed by the relocation of the International event Memphis to Rio de Janiero in 2014. Unlike the ATP, the WTA has had a weak presence in South America and hasn’t been able to cultivate top-level talent there since Gabriela Sabatini. With Gisela Dulko’s retirement, the highest-ranked South American player is Paula Ormaechea from Argentina at No. 141. Hopefully the investment in South America pays off not just financially for the tour but also in inspiring a future generation.

3. Goodbye Wozniacki Open, Hello Radwanska Invitational. Should we read any more into this than we should? The tournament in Copenhagen, which launched when Wozniacki was on her way to the No. 1 ranking, will be relocated to Katowice, Poland, 50 miles from Krakow, the home of No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska. The WTA has done well to capitalize on Radwanska’s marketability in Poland, even releasing post-match interview videos conducted in Polish for fans back home. Out with the old and in with the new? I don’t think so. Even with her struggles, Wozniacki is a big draw at tournaments. Her popularity hasn’t taken much of a dip. She reminds me of Ana Ivanovic in that way, a player whose popularity remained stable even when she dropped out of the top 30.

4. Wait, Birmingham? England? Unlike the ATP, the women already have a Premier grass court event in Eastbourne, so it’s surprising to see the smaller event in Birmingham elevated to Premier status as well. The tournament has been able to attract big names in the past — Sharapova and Li played Birmingham in recent years — and the Edgbaston Priory Club is undergoing a $19 million site renovation that will see a permanent Centre Court structure (the current temporary court only seats 1,500 fans) and improve the facilities. But none of that matter if they can’t fix their grass issues. Here’s a picture I took last year of one of the outer courts during a couple of Melanie Oudin’s matches. Yes, that’s supposed to be grass.

(Courtney Nguyen)

(Courtney Nguyen)

(Courtney Nguyen)

(Courtney Nguyen)

Forget Centre Court. Let’s get some actual grass on the ground first.

5. Tennis stays in Istanbul: While the WTA Championships will leave Istanbul for another city in 2014 (rumored to be Singapore), it’s good to see the WTA will remain a presence in the city that has served as a tremendous host these last three years. The Istanbul Cup will return in 2014 after a three year-hiatus to make room for the Championships.

  • Published On Jan 09, 2013
  • 4 comments
    divnadagmo
    divnadagmo

    I was against hosting the Olympics in China for the obvious reasons, supporting a non-democratic country that does not observe human rights and freedom of speech (Ai Weiwei and many more, less prominent examples) by allowing them to advertize themselves as acceptable on a big stage like the Olympics felt wrong. However, I do understand that Chinese people are just as much crazy about sports and would also like to host such an event. But I find it hard to justify that with the obvious democratic defecits this country still has and think it's wrong to give their leaders a platform to self-advertize and paint a glossy picture of the harsh realities. 

     

    So yes, I will volunteer to say that I am not happy about such money-greedy decisions by the WTA. Why is this never addressed and critiqued, I wonder?  Tennis uses its seemingly spotless image to whitewash countries that have little to no tradition of having female athletes compete, like in Dubai. Where womens rights don't exist. Or countries that have an autocratic rule, like Azerbaidjan or Uzbekistan. To get chummy with those leaders only for the money - NOT COOL.

    johnccy
    johnccy

    To be honest, I don't think there's anything wrong with having 5 of 18 Asian events in China.  That works out to less than 1/3 of them, which to me seems very reasonable.  In fact, I'd say, for a country of China's size, population, economy, etc.,  there's a good argument that they were severely underrepresented before, especially if people there are willing to pay to watch these events.  Compare that to North (& South) American events combined, where 11 out of 17 are held in the US.  I think where a tournament is located is based on financial considerations as well (e.g. how many fans would pay to see tennis in that location), not just the rankings of the players or simply trying to balance the geopolitical sensitivities of a particular area.  Otherwise, the same arguments can be made that having 11 US tournaments is relying way too much on the Serena Williams (who at 30+ won't be around much longer either), if we're going by rankings alone, or the overall subtext of wondering why the allocation of the North & South American events aren't distributed more evenly among all the countries in those continents.  

    scoora
    scoora

    Completely insulted they got rid off Tokyo, one of my favourite events on the calendar, in particularly how respectful the crowd is. Is the WTA even mindful of how players feel about this change? Or is it all down to a SWOT analysis of who has the greatest ROI? I agree  that they are putting all their eggs in one basket with relying so much on Li Na and the boom of China. I pray it stops here and the ITF in general has no thoughts of moving a grand slam to China.

    scoora
    scoora

     @johnccy Part true but the U.S is a grand slam host and the U.S open series serves as pre-sequel preparation for players and many international players being based in the states. I definitely don't think the U.S has relied completely on Serena or Venus for that matter, they aren't put under as much pressure to perform as Li Na has been, if anything Serena has been somewhat under appreciated back home. Americans I'm sure still have a passion to view a variety of elite stars from across the globe, but yes I do agree with more development spread within the South American markets due to rise of Spanish and Argentinian players. My point is directed at taking away a tournament like Tokyo which has been a premier event for 30 years with rich history for the sake of drawing crowds for Li Na in Wuhan. I guess it's all to do with moving with the times and the dollars.