There have been some memorable scrambles for the final qualification spots at the WTA Tour Finals.
But this year’s last-minute maneuvering is right up there.
So we’ve done a bit of a deep dive into the WTA rule books – and the previous history of the race – to lay out what’s happening.
American Sloane Stephens left some big points on the table after losing in the first round of both Tokyo and Wuhan on the Asian swing. Even a third-round effort at the Premier Mandatory in Beijing wasn’t enough to secure a spot in Singapore.
But someone – we’re going to go with her experienced agent, John Tobias – figured out that by taking the last available top-20 wild card into Moscow (Simona Halep took the other one), she would preclude Elina Svitolina from getting it.
That would thus ensure the Ukrainian player could not pass her in the “Race to Singapore” standings.
So once that draw is made in Moscow on Sunday, and Stephens’s name is on it, she qualifies – no matter what.
It’s a significant accomplishment in itself, as it’s the first time Stephens has qualified. It’s also a potentially very lucrative one.
Now, Svitolina has to sit in a holding pattern somewhere, her fate in the hands of Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova.
Pliskova scrambling in Asia
Pliskova has been in a final mad dash to make it.
The 26-year-old Czech was in the eighth spot after Beijing, just 10 points ahead of No. 9 Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.
After winning Tokyo, which was the least fruitful of the three tournaments in Asia in terms of points (470), Pliskova lost to the in-form Qiang Wang – twice. She went out in her first match in Wuhan, and in the third round in Beijing.
So there was work to do.
Pliskova quickly took a wild card into the nearby International-level event in Tianjin, China. And although the road was a little bumpy along the way, she has reached the final and will play No. 2 seed Caroline Garcia on Sunday.
If she beats Garcia, Pliskova is in.
You would then expect she would withdraw from Moscow, and stay in Asia before the start of the WTA Tour Finals.
But … if Pliskova is beaten in the Tianjin final, her road becomes more complicated. And not only because she would have to travel to Moscow.
As a top-four seed, she has a bye in the first round there. But if Pliskova loses her first match played, she would get second-round prize money – but only first-round ranking points. That means only a single point.
To earn any significant points in Moscow, she would have to at least win that second-round match and reach the quarterfinals, which would guarantee her 100 points at minimum.
Bertens path more straightforward
For Kiki Bertens, whose outstanding season has her in the top 10 for the first time this week at No. 10, the qualification of both Stephens and Pliskova Sunday would leave her in a direct race with Svitolina for the final qualifying spot.
As we speak, Bertens has 3,710 points, and Svitolina has 3,850.
So the math is simple. Being a quarterfinalist in Moscow (with its 100 points), won’t do it. She would have to make the semifinals.
If Bertens managed to do that, and by chance Pliskova lost on Sunday and failed to make the quarterfinals in Moscow, she would also pass Pliskova.
And in that still-possible scenario, Stephens, Bertens and Svitolina would take the final three spots. And Pliskova would be the one left out as an alternate.
The only player who has no control over her own fate, after the nifty Stephens wild-card move, is Svitolina.
Of course – just like the others – she had control of her fate all season long. And even the last few weeks. But she didn’t take advantage.
On a trial in Asia with new coach Nick Saviano, it wasn’t a great trip.
After a first-round bye in Wuhan, Svitolina drew the rising Aryna Sabalenka in the first round. She lost in three sets. And Sabalenka went on to win the Premier 5 tournament. (Svitolina had not originally had that tournament on her top-10 commitment list. But she added it – with a $50,000 bonus – as the WTA moved to meet its player commitment there).
In Beijing the following week, Svitolina won the first set 6-0 against the crafty Aleksandra Krunic in the first round – but lost in a third-set tiebreak.
At the International-level tournament in Hong Kong this week, Svitolina fell to Qiang Wang in the quarterfinals. She got a reprieve Friday night, as the match was suspended at 6-2, 5-2 for Wang. But when they returned the following day, she bowed out 6-2, 6-4.
Efforts to control her own destiny were stymied by the rush of late wild cards. Notably, had Halep not decided to take one in Moscow at the last minute to test out her injured back and also, hopefully, get in some match play before Singapore, that would have been an easy option.
Precedent in Linz, 2013
It was five years ago right around this time that Angelique Kerber was in one of these last-minute chases to qualify for the year-end finals (held in Istanbul that year).
But … there wasn’t room at the inn in Linz.
Still, after the draw was made, out of nowhere, Kerber was in the revised draw as the No. 1 seed, but at the bottom of the draw. Stephens, the No. 2 seed (and also looking to make Singapore) remained at the top.
It was a great get for the tournament, which had seen Petra Kvitova pull out a few hours before the draw, citing a back injury.
Kerber wouldn’t technically be allowed to play a third International-level tournament that year. But that also got a pass because of a commitment loophole in one of the two earlier events she played.
How did Kerber get in, so late?
A little-known Austrian player named Lisa-Marie Moser, who had received a wild card, was withdrawn “for personal reasons”. The tournament gave her a wild card into the doubles (and probably a little $weetener) to take one for … Austria.
The late withdrawal of a wild card was a loophole that enabled Linz to add one of its choice at the last minute. The withdrawal of Kvitova, who originally entered before the deadline, wouldn’t have allowed it.
Ardent WTA fans will remember it was a fairly big tempest in a teapot at the time. People were getting bent out of shape because poor Moser (a player they’d never heard of) got the short end. But it was, in fact, just a perfect storm of elements that aligned for both the tournament and for Kerber.
How perfect? She wouldn’t even have had a shot at Singapore had Maria Sharapova not ended her season with an ongoing shoulder injury.
Ana Ivanovic, who had been the No. 2 seed, was bumped down No. 3 and moved up to the top half of the draw. She wasn’t happy, even though she ended up making the final. Neither was Caroline Wozniacki, who wrote to then-WTA chief Stacey Allaster to complain.
Kerber won the tournament, qualified for the Tour Finals – and knocked Wozniacki down to alternate. She didn’t get out of the round-robin portion in Istanbul.
Wild cards no longer an option
If Moscow were an International or a Premier 5 event, and a top-10 player pulled out that late (we’re talking about Pliskova here, not the wild cards), you could make the argument that the WTA could add a last-minute top-20 wild card to fulfill its player commitment obligations.
But Premier 700 tournaments have no such player commitment formulas. And so there’s no opportunity there for Svitolina to make a last-minute trip unless one of the wild cards did pull out.
In Luxembourg, an International-level tournament, Garbiñe Muguruza decided to take a late wild card and play for the first time since 2012.
The Spaniard is eliminated from the Singapore race. So her reasons for playing were purely to try to finish the season strongly.
As well, after marquee names Venus Williams and Victoria Azarenka bailed out and ended their seasons early, the tournament worked hard to get a top player in the late going.
Could it have been Svitolina?
Well, there are rules about top-10 commitment players (which Svitolina is this year, for the first time) playing two International-level events in the same half of the year.
(Bear with us here)
Mind you, there are exceptions galore. And Svitolina does fit some of them (Premier 700s played, no other top-10 players entered in the proposed third tournament – fellow top-10 player Muguruza did not enter; she got a wild card).
The Hong Kong international tournament this week is an outlier in that it offered three times the standard prize money. That was dependant on how many top-10 players it attracted. Had there been two, it would have been doubled to $500,000. For three – which it got in Svitolina, Ostapenko and Muguruza – it went up to $750,000.
Was there an exception to made there, that it was “technically” over the minimum commitment for an international-level tournament and therefore wouldn’t count fo Svitolina? That was the loophole used by Kerber in 2013.
For Muguruza, this is the third International event of 2018. She played Monterrey in the first half, and Hong Kong last week. So she took advantage of a loophole.
But … Svitolina did not play an International in the first half of the season. Thus she would have been precluded, despite all possible loopholes, from playing a second one in the second half.
But … did she enter one, and withdraw because of injury? Would that count?
It’s all a moot point now, with the Luxembourg draw done and the wild cards set.
But as we saw in 2013, stranger things have happened.
International clock ticking for Svitolina
All of which to say: there remained a possibility that Svitolina could play Luxembourg, if she could get there. But either Muguruza, or the tournament’s other two wild cards (Fiona Ferro and Mandy Minella) would have had to withdraw.
Minella is a Luxembourgian. So that wasn’t going to happen. Ferro, currently ranked No. 108 and on the cusp of making the Australian Open main draw, wouldn’t have bought into it.,
(A comparison of the 2013 and 2018 WTA rulebooks reveals that the language for this has been modified. In 2013, a change like that could be made until the order of play for the first day of the main draw was released. But in 2018, that rule applies only to doubles. For the singles main draw, it must before before the draw is made).
So Svitolina’s last shot is Moscow.
Moscow draw at 6 a.m. EDT
Pliskova withdrawing at the last minute, given the tournament’s status, doesn’t confer a player commitment upon it, wouldn’t change anything for Svitolina.
Beyond Halep and Stephens, the tournament’s two wild cards are young Russian prospects Anastasia Potapova and Anna Kalinskaya. It’s hard to see either of them pulling out. As far as the tournament is concerned (it’s also a joint event with the ATP Tour), Svitolina is not Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova.
The Tianjin final goes at 2 a.m. EDT, and would probably wrap up around 4 a.m. EDT.
The Moscow draw is set for 1p.m. local time (6 a.m. EDT).
It seems there won’t be a perfect storm this time. So all Svitolina can do is wait, as others determine her Singapore fate.
All in all, a bit of an ignominious end for a player who began the season with such high hopes. She won Brisbane in January and was ranked No. 4 going into the Australian Open. She won Dubai in February, and the big Premier Mandatory in May, on clay in Rome.
(It’s entirely possible, going way down the rules rabbit hole, that we overlooked a factor, or a rule. If so, feel free to DM on Twitter or comment on this post).