By Aron Solomon
The WTA finals wrapped up on Wednesday, with Garbiñe Muguruza taking home the championship trophy. It was the first time a Spanish woman has ever hoisted the WTA finals trophy. The 28-year-old’s win over Estonian Anett Kontaveit – who had the true breakout year among all WTA competitors – was memorable and historic, putting the finishing touches on one of the best tour final tournaments ever.
The level of tennis throughout the entire week was absolutely amazing, with riveting matches and a high level of play befitting this new group of the world’s top players. While anyone with a tennis opinion had something to say about the finals being moved from its regular home in Shenzhen to Guadalajara this year due to the ongoing global pandemic, the tournament exceeded even the greatest optimist’s expectations.
So much so that many are calling for a more permanent move from Shenzhen to Guadalajara for the crown tournament in the women’s tennis season. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s actually a highly compelling argument for many very recent reasons.
The first, which is the elephant in the women’s tennis world room, is the disappearance of Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai. The entire matter has brought about the trending #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag on social media, which has gone from launch to the top trending topic on Twitter in 72 hours.
MailOnline was among the first to report on Peng’s disappearance:
The politically expedient thing that WTA can immediately do is introduce the idea to Chinese authorities that Shenzhen and any other tour stops in the People’s Republic of China are off the table until this issue becomes far less opaque. The fact that the WTA would even consider an ongoing relationship with China at this point is deeply concerning and far too many questions for WTA involvement in China exist from a legal and practical point of view.
On Wednesday, the WTA’s chief executive, Steve Simon, released this statement regarding an emai the WTA received, which was also released by a Chinese state media outlet, where Peng purportedly denied her previous allegations of sexual assault:
“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”
He calls for “independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.” and says that he has “repeatedly tried to reach her, to no avail.”
Finally, early on Friday morning, Simon made the statement that the tennis world had been waiting for:
That the WTA would pull out of China and risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars if Peng Shuai is not fully accounted for and her allegations are not properly investigated.
Not that any professional sports league has a lot of leverage in dealing with the Chinese government, but China historically doesn’t like to lose face when it comes to international sport. As someone who has lived in Beijing, I can assure you that having multiple stops in China each year for the WTA Tour (which has several spiring young Chinese players) as well as several for the men’s ATP Tour, is viewed internally in the same light as hosting Formula 1 races – the Chinese government officials hold this out as a badge of modernization and pride.
While Peng Shuai’s disappearance is the most important sports-related story in the world today, there are also plenty of reasons unrelated to law, politics, or human rights that make the move from Shenzhen the right choice.
While it’s true that the WTA Tour Finals prize money in Shenzhen is significantly higher than it has been in Guadalajara, that may be less of a problem than one would expect. The massive success of this year’s Guadalajara tour finals should make it very easy to line up either a significantly bigger primary sponsor than Akron, or to keep Akron as the lead (for more money) and involve more secondary sponsors to sweeten the prize pot. No matter how we look at it, getting the prize money In Guadalajara at least closer to Shenzhen seems doable.
In Shenzhen (the last time the WTA Finals were held, in 2019) the prize pot was $14,000,000, as contrasted with $5,000,000 this year in Guadalajara. This year, an undefeated singles champion would have earned the maximum 1,500 tour points, and $1,680,000. That’s a really decent baseline payday for the WTA Finals and if the WTA and local officials would work together on making Guadalajara the ongoing home for the event, there’s no reason tha prize money couldn’t double. There’s no doubt that a $14 million purse is attractive for the season-ending tournament, yet prize money in itself doesn’t make a tournament a success.
The most compelling reason to keep the WTA Finals in Guadalajara moving forward is also the most obvious:
It was simply a massive fan and TV success.
From the first match, the tournament had the intangibles that the vast majority of tournaments lack: it had a fantastic, electric vibe. Sure, that’s kind of amorphous but it’s true. This WTA Finals was more exciting to the in-person and international TV audience than anything Shenzhen has ever put on.
While the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center has a capacity of 12,000, as compared to 6,639 at the Panamerican Tennis Center, the time difference is a major competitive advantage for Guadalajara over Shezhen. Guadalajara is on Chicago time, while Shenzhen is New York plus 11 hours. That means that an 8pm match in Shenzhen is live at 7am New York and 4am in Los Angeles – far from ideal. Guadalajara has the potential for a significantly larger global TV audience as the popularity of women’s tennis continues to boom through the talents of these young stars.
The final point goes, as it should, to the players. As measured by their comments and social media feeds, they absolutely adored being in Guadalajara. They complimented the event’s organization, the beauty of the city, and the warmth of the Tapatios – the people of Guadalajara. Even the dreaded altitude and pressureless balls faded into the background after the first day as the players looked around and realized that this was the world-class event that it needed to be. Shouldn’t the players’ perspective matter in deciding where their year-end championships are held?
The suggestion floating around social media that is only marginally more compelling than keeping the tournament in Shenzhen is to run the ATP and WTA Tour finals together as one event in Turin, the new home for the ATP finals. The women deserve their own global showcase, not being overshadowed in the same city at the same time by what is clearly a far less interesting game these days – the men’s ATP Tour.