THE BATTLE for the remaining four places for the WTA Finals in Singapore goes down to the wire at the Tianjin Open from today and the Kremlin Cup in Moscow new week.
Still in the running are Karolina Pliskova and Flavia Pennetta, who will both start in Tianjin, and Moscow-bound Lucie Safarova, Angelique Kerber and Carla Suarez Navarro.
World No 2 Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova (3), Garbine Muguruza (5) and Petra Kvitova (4) have already booked their places.
The big one who pulled out is world No 1 Serena Williams. The 34-year-old stunned the tennis fraternity 10 days ago, with the announcement that she was withdrawing from last week’s China Open and the WTA Finals “to address health issues”.
It is a big blow for Singapore, for sure. Williams is the women’s tennis game at the moment and a big reason tennis fans watch WTA contests. But despite her absence, it will not diminish the quality of the competition at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. To believe it will, is to overstate Williams’ stature in the women’s game.
No sport is dependent on one player.
Take the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals. Two of football’s biggest stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, did not feature past the last 16 and quarterfinals of the competition after their teams, Portugal and Argentina, were knocked out at those two stages.
Global interest in fact increased in the remaining matches. The average 531-million TV audience for the final match between Spain and Holland was also then the biggest in the history of the World Cup (Source: FIFA).
Why the WTA Finals is a top draw
So, with or without Williams, the WTA Finals will play out at the highest levels and there are two reasons why.
First, outside the four Grand Slams, it offers the season’s richest winner’s purse.
Every win in Singapore also guarantees US$153,000 for each player. This is a big incentive because out of the eight who competed at Kallang last year, only Eugenie Bouchard failed to win a match in the competition’s round-robin format. She went home empty-handed.
The bigger incentive to play at the Finals is the points on offer. After the Grand Slam, it awards the most and the eventual winner can earn a maximum of 1,500, if she wins every match. And each win in Singapore is also worth 230 points.
As points earned at the Finals must be included in each player’s best 16 competitions tally for the WTA 52-week ranking (See here), Singapore is an important stop. It has the potential to give a player’s seeding a huge lift for all competitions in 2016.
Where a player stands in the rankings before a competition, especially in the Grand Slams, can make a difference between a tougher and smoother progress to every final. And this also means how much money she eventually earns.
Caroline Wozniacki’s participation at last year’s Finals paid important dividends. She reached the semi-finals and collected a total of 690 points from her three wins at the Indoor Stadium. As a result, despite the 25-year-old’s poor form this season, she stood at No 5 for the most part of 2015 and went into each tournament she competed in as one of the top seeds.
Why Williams is skipping Singapore
If the WTA Finals is worth so much, why did Williams decide to give it a miss? Injuries aside, she leads nearest rival, Simona Halep, in the WTA 52-week ranking by a massive 4615-point gap. It will take some undertaking to unseat the American and entering 2016 well rested, Williams is likely to keep her top spot in the next 12 months.
But let’s consider the health issues she raised in ending her season early. It is evident she had an intense season.
Out of 12 WTA tournaments Williams competed in this year, she won six, including the Australian and French Opens, and Wimbledon. She also reached the semis in four others. This is quite an achievement, even punishing, for a 34-year-old playing top-level tennis. No other women’s tennis player has gone as far.
Other acclaimed greats had either retired at an earlier age or were unable to win a major singles tournament after they reached 33. Billie Jean King quit when she was 32. Chris Evert won her last Grand Slam at the 1986 French Open at the same age as King and retired three years later. Martina Navratilova did slightly better, tasting her last major victory at Wimbledon in 1990 when she was 33 and then retired in 1994. For Steffi Graf, she called it a day as a 30-year-old.
Williams disclosed she carried elbow and knee injuries this year, and at the US Open, her heart was a concern. The last condition harks back to February 2011, when she suffered pulmonary embolism in Los Angeles, a potentially life-threatening condition, and was rushed to hospital. Her health concerns are no small matter.
So, given her less than ideal physical condition at this stage of the season, there’s no guarantee she would be in top condition or able to give her all had she decided to play in Singapore.
With or without Williams, the WTA Finals at this point in time is also about who is set to be women’s tennis next big icon, as the World No 1 prepares to hand the baton over in the coming years. There are a handful. Among them, Romania’s Halep, Czech Kvitova and Spaniard Muguruza have all defeated Williams at one time or another. They are worth watching.
ROAD TO SINGAPORE LEADERBOARD
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IN RED: Players who have qualified for Singapore