It’s been a successful and eventful year for the WTA as it prepares to close out its season at this week’s WTA Championships at Istanbul. Though last year’s event featuring the world’s top eight women was fraught with uncertainty as many wondered if anyone would show up to watch (the answer was a resounding yes with near sell-out crowds thanks in large part to discounted ticket prices) along with the deserved though widely unpopular continued reign of Caroline Wozniacki as the year-end No. 1 despite her inability to win a Major title.
Wozniacki herself won’t be appearing this year at Istanbul, having endured a less than consistent season that saw her plummet from the top ranking in January to all the way out of the top ten. Turkey’s national airline, that promoted a commercial featuring Wozniacki, has had to change the ad over the course of the year from touting her as the top female player to just “one of the world’s top players”.
While the WTA did suffer its own identity crisis last year with a lack of engaging rivalries and multiple title winners each week, this year has brought about a welcome 180 degree shift starting with Victoria Azarenka winning her first Major in Melbourne and then cementing her No. 1 ranking with a 26 match win streak that ended in Miami. Russian superstar Maria Sharapova, who once described herself as “cow on ice” when it came to playing on clay, surprised many by winning Roland Garros and thus completing a career Grand Slam that will no doubt push her endorsement asking price higher into the stratosphere.
But just as Azarenka and Sharapova appeared on the verge of becoming the dominant rivalry, it was Serena Williams, overcoming a nervous first round loss at Roland Garros to French journey woman Virginie Razzano, who had her best summer ever winning her fifth Wimbledon title, two gold medals at the Olympics, and then her fourth U.S. Open in a rousing three-set final against Azarenka. Williams, who is the favorite to win at Istanbul, has no mathematical chance to end the year as No.1, but to many she already is no matter what the computer printout reads.
Williams, now age 31, represents the WTA’s past and present, but not necessarily its future. Though she remains the sport’s most successful and dominant player, she continues to be the lone American who has the best chance of winning Grand Slam singles titles for her country. Williams, to the relief of many, has said that she plans to keep on playing for some time, but it may take several more years before a new American champion who doesn’t share her last name emerges.
With interest in professional tennis continuing to decline among general sports fans in the U.S. along with the ever steady increase in European players competing on tour, it’s no surprise that the WTA will continue to focus its efforts on expanding in the rest of the world and especially in emerging growth areas. In a recent interview with the New York Times, WTA CEO Stacey Allastar confirmed that after the WTA finals spends it last year at Istanbul in 2013, the event will move on to either Asia, Eastern Europe or Latin America, though its exact location is still to be determined. That returning the event to either Los Angeles, where it was last held in the States back in 2005 to half-empty crowds, or to its once long-time home at Madison Square Garden in New York, is not on the cards shouldn’t be a surprise. Allastar, who is also having to find a tour sponsor after the WTA’s long deal with Sony comes to an end, is wise to keep all her options open and look for opportunities in as many places as possible rather than pin hopes on an American tennis revival in a post-Williams era.
But in some ways this year’s event in Istanbul, that features for the first time eight women from eight different countries, also reflects how the world doesn’t really contain itself, either in business or sport, to just geographic boundaries anymore. Azarenka is from Belarus, but spent considerable time in Arizona and now officially resides in Monte-Carlo. China’s Li Na, a household name in her own nation, trains for most of the year in Germany while Sharapova, who proudly carried the Russian flag during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, lives nearly year-round in California.
Like the TV commercial, the WTA is fully prepared to change the script to suit the ever changing global business climate. But wherever the finals are held, the world’s best will be happy to get there, no matter how many frequent flyer miles it takes them throughout the year to qualify.