MELBOURNE, Australia – Serena Williams begins the 2020 season undefeated at 5-0.
She won a tuneup event in Auckland, NZ defeating Camila Giorgi, Christina McHale, Laura Siegemund, Amanda Anisimova and Jessica Pegula in the final.
Siegemund was the only player to take a set from her. And she also got to the doubles final with her good pal Caroline Wozniacki.
Now, as she didn’t get the job done in four previous Grand Slam finals since her return from having daughter Olympia, and still at 23 major singles titles, will Melbourne be the place?
A year ago, not having played since the US Open final against Naomi Osaka, Williams made the quarterfinals.
She was up 5-1 in the third set against Karolina Pliskova – but then lost the set. And the match.
Australia is the home of Margaret Court, who has those 24 majors – 11 of them won here, when the fields were not what they are now.
So there might be some poetic justice if Williams could tie Court’s record on her home turf.
Williams going for history
And it’s the 50th anniversary of Court’s calendar Grand Slam in 1970. And the Australian Open has invited Court to be recognized at this year’s tournament despite her outspoken views about homosexuality.
Tennis Australia has worked hard (unsuccessfully) to separate the athlete from the woman – and her views. It hasn’t really flown.
Court won’t, however, be presenting the trophy to the women’s champion.
If does end up being Serena, that truly would have been quite the photo op.
Third round already a challenge for Williams
What does Williams think of all this?
No idea. She didn’t do any pre-tournament press.
Her first-round opponent Monday will be Russia’s Anastasia Potapova, an 18-year-old currently ranked No. 90.
The first two rounds look friendly enough.
But after that, she could face the rising star Dayana Yastremska, who is coached by Williams’s longtime former hitting partner, Sascha (Big Sascha) Bajin.
Then, it could be No. 3 seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka – or her sister Venus, or even 15-year-old Coco Gauff.
There may be some animus between the two, although Williams has had the final word where it counts, on the tennis court. There is exponentially more animus between the fan bases of both players, which is unpleasant.
And in the end, rather pointless. Because given where both are in terms of their careers at this point, meetings between the two biggest marquee attractions in the women’s game – still – are rare.
That 2018 French Open might have been Sharapova’s best recent chance to put a dent in the lopsided head-to-head. She had been playing very well; this was before her shoulder woes kicked in again.
And it was Serena who was fighting a more uphill battle. Last year’s Roland Garros was only her third tournament back after 16 months away as she gave birth to daughter Olympia (with all that came in the aftermath of that). And then, the pec issue.
This time? Who really knows what Monday night will bring.
Back spasms force Williams out of Toronto
In Toronto just a little over two weeks ago, Williams was hit with a case of back spasms. She said it’s something she has dealt with periodically during her career.
The American took the court clearly diminished against home-town girl Bianca Andreescu. And at 1-3 in the first set, she called it a day. Those touching moments with Andreescu on the court went all around the world.
(As it happens, the two were practicing side by side a few days ago at the US Open).
Typically, Williams said, they dissipated in 24-48 hours. But she wasn’t able to make the date a few days later in Cincinnati. She stuck around scenic Mason, Ohio for awhile, though, cheering on sister Venus as she made a run and enjoying some time with some members of her family.
Sharapova struggling with back-to-back
For Sharapova – only 32 but 15 years (!!) down the road from that first Wimbledon title won as a teenaged ingenue, the problem has been the shoulder.
For the better part of the last decade, it has always been the shoulder.
When she has played, she has played pretty well. But she plays one match – and then can’t answer the bell for the next one.
Since returning from her 15-month doping suspension, Sharapova hasn’t managed to get back into the top 20. She got very close; a year ago at this time, she hit No. 21.
But she has played just seven tournaments this season. There was nearly a five-month gap between the walkover she gave Daria Kasatkina in the second round of St. Petersburg after the Australian Open, and her return on grass in Mallorca in mid-June.
She played one match there, then lost to Angelique Kerber in the second.
Sharapova had tried to get back for the French Open, but couldn’t make it.
At Wimbledon, she was a second-set tiebreak win away from advancing against Pauline Parmentier in the first round. But then she retired down 0-5 in the third set (Yeah, we know).
In Toronto, she lost her opener to Anett Kontaveit in three sets. In Cincinnati, she defeated Alison Riske in the first round, then fell to Ashleigh Barty.
How her form is, and what she’s capable of on the biggest stage in tennis, is the question mark.
Serena at No. 8
Williams has made three Grand Slam finals since her return, including this year at Wimbledon.
So overall, her form at the majors has been very good – a big reason why she’s ranked No. 8 in the world right now. But in rank-and-file WTA events, she’s not performed.
Williams, too, has played just seven events in 2019. But they’ve all been big ones – three majors, two Premier Mandatories, and two Premier 5s.
After beating Victoria Azarenka in her Indian Wells opener – a cracking early-round match that had many of the elements this one does – she retired against Garbiñe Muguruza. In Miami, she won her opener and then gave Qiang Wang a walkover.
In Rome, she won her first-round match – and then gave sister Venus a walkover.
But her road to the Rogers Cup final included her first win over defending US Open champion Naomi Osaka, And if she didn’t play her best tennis in Toronto, she scrapped hard, and reached the final before having to retire.
You know she’s up for this
Coincidentally – or not??? – Williams hit with Grigor Dimitrov on Friday, after the draw was out and the first-round matchups were known.
It’s not the first time she has practiced with Dimitrov, especially before a Grand Slam. But there’s a special piquant to this one, as fans of both well know and we need not reiterate here.
Maybe the last time
The anticipation for their meeting in Paris ended in disappointment. All you can hope is that this one offers Slam-final like atmosphere and intensity (you know it will from the players) and that the tennis is both competitive and high quality.
There aren’t many “marquee”-type names that well justify a slot in an Ashe Stadium night session, from the women’s side.
There are plenty who deserve it on accomplishment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here, in this venue, in this city, and for the predominantly casual tennis fans who attend these night sessions for the atmosphere and the show.
That two of them will meet in the first round – and thus, one will be eliminated – is a cruel joke by the draw gods.
If it is the last time they find themselves on the same court, let’s hope they at least go out with a bang.
TORONTO – Serena Williams won the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2013 (one of 11 titles that year).
She also win it in 2011 (one of just two that year, along with Stanford).
Williams also won it back in … 2001. Which is crazy. And it wasn’t even her first title; it was her 10th. Even crazier that she made her first Rogers Cup final in 2000 in Montreal.
Félix Auger-Aliassime was just being born at that time.
She’s back in Toronto this year, for the first time since losing to Belinda Bencic in the semis of the 2015 tournament
But from early returns, it’s pretty hard to get a gauge on where she’s at, and how she’s feeling.
There wasn’t a lot of running during her practice on the stadium court Sunday. But that’s not unusual in the days before a tournament.
But we’ve never seen her stop a practice and get on the phone. The phone was out, as if she were expecting something. And coach Patrick Mouratoglou ran over to get it, and there was some discussion.
First All-Access in awhile
The withdrawal of Petra Kvitova meant that Williams moved up from No. 9 to No. 8 in the seedings.
On the plus side, that meant that she gets a first-round bye, and therefore won’t play until Wednesday. (She will meet the winner between Elise Mertens and Aliaksandra Sasnovich, and finds herself in the same quarter as No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka).
On the other side, that meant that she had a mandatory commitment to do the WTA’s All-Access media availability. That’s generally a requirement of the top eight seeds.
The American was seeded No. 10 in Indian Wells, Rome and Miami. So even though the media no doubt would have wanted to hear from her, she wasn’t required to do it. That was true at the majors as well, although as a defending finalist, she did do press at Wimbledon.
Williams clearly wasn’t particularly in the mood on Sunday. But she went through with it like the professional she is – eyebrows firmly in place, and wearing a neon green pullover whose color look smashing on her.
She opted for a more formal press-conference type setting, right after her morning practice. The other seeds fulfilled the commitment in a more informal venue, at a table in a corporate lounge a few hours later.
Williams was pretty subdued. Then again, she’s probably a little tired, nearly two years later, of answering questions about how motherhood changed her life.
WIMBLEDON – There will be plenty of stories describing how Simona Halep played the match of her life to win her first Wimbledon Saturday.
There will be others that will point to how Serena Williams – faced with making history once more – could not step up to the plate.
Hopefully they’ll mostly be sympathetic. We might not be able to fathom being in that situation. But we know how much Williams wants it.
Maybe too much.
If many fans watch tennis matches through the rose-coloured glasses of their support of one player or the other, the reality in most tennis matches is there are usually two concurrent stories.
Halep played in the zone, almost with blinders on. Only three unforced errors blemished her scorecard.
But Williams allowed her to play that way.
At no point during the 56-minute, 6-2, 6-2 loss did Williams come roaring back to put Halep under championship pressure. It’s a lot easier to be in the zone when your opponent is unable to successfully push you out of it. Halep never had to really see what she was made of on this day.
Maybe she would have been made of championship stuff regardless. If sort of felt that way at times, didn’t it? But we’ll never know. You know Williams wishes she could have given her that test.
That doesn’t mean Halep doesn’t fully deserve the victory. She did what she had to do on Saturday. She had a brilliant tournament.
That’s just … what happened.
The Wimbledon wish list
You get the feeling Halep may have thought she’d never win Wimbledon. By now, she believed the slippery footing negatively affected what she considers to be her biggest strength: her movement.
But grass is a tricky mistress. The season is so short, it takes exponentially longer to figure out how to play on it. And there aren’t a lot of coaches out there – not even British ones – who are so well-rounded that they can impart specific grass-court strategy from the get-go.
This year, Halep figured out a few things. She figured out that maybe what grass took away, it gave back in other areas. And she’s good enough now, and experienced enough, to make those adjustments.
That she already had a Grand Slam title and has been No. 1 helped. No doubt.
Happy moments at the AELTC
A woman from the clay-court nation of Romania starts telling stories about how her mother wanted her to make a Wimbledon final. And then she starts talking about her excitement upon realizing that winning the title makes you an (honorary) member of the All-England Club. And then, she gets to meet the Duchess of Cambridge – her favorite of the duchesses. It was just happy feels all around.
Halep has never been a publicly emotional person in the happy sense of the word. She has shown the world plenty of anger on the tennis court – mostly at herself. And she didn’t shed many tears after that final point, as incredulous as she was about what she’d just done.
But oh, that smile.
As much as it radiated, she warmed the whole place.
The scenes painted a concrete picture of just how this mythical place is in every tennis player’s DNA. Perhaps – above all others – it’s the one they cherish the most if they can win it.
And nothing Williams did, or didn’t do, takes anything away from that.
Note-perfect in defeat
Williams and her marketing team chose this Wimbledon to finally speak out about the nasty situation during last year’s US Open final.
The essay in Harper’s Bazaar is in the August issue, out July 23. It’s online now, nearly 10 months after the incident.
It starts with a false premise: that because Williams wasn’t looking at coach Patrick Mouratoglou, she was unfairly penalized. We heard that on the court last September. But of course, that’s not the rule. The violation is on the coach for coaching, not on the player for looking (or not looking). But you can’t penalize the coach.
It’s not an essay that will make anyone change their minds about the incident. That’s already carved in stone. But perhaps it was cathartic for her to finally put it down in words.
If there’s one message that rang true, it’s how badly she felt that Osaka had been deprived of the joy of her big triumph. And so, despite what Williams might have been feeling inside about how she handled (or failed to handle) the moment Saturday, she seemed determined to be the most gracious runner-up she could be.
Because she’s a pro. And, clearly, she takes lessons from everything that happens to her. They might not be the lessons that some people want her to learn. But she’s a 37-year-old mother, and she’s learning her life lessons her own way.
A well done do-over
There was no way anything was going to occur Saturday that would have tarnished the moment for Halep in any way. Williams was note-perfect: smiling, gracious, complimentary.
She smiled for the photos. And unlike last year, she didn’t disdainfully leave her runner-up plate on her chair as she exited Centre Court (which was actually kind of great, but didn’t go over too well).
She was everything you would want her to be.
But Williams did get an opportunity to further the narrative explored in that essay with the final … question posed to her at the press conference.
WIMBLEDON – Venus and Serena (no last names needed) don’t practice together that often at tournaments.
Most of the time, they both get their business done early morning, often on adjacent courts, with their own teams.
And, let’s be fair, there haven’t been that many opportunities in the last year and a half because Serena hasn’t even played very much.
But it seems to happen at Wimbledon.
And on Friday, it did. We’re told they also plan to practice together on Saturday.
Here’s what it looked like.
Here they were a year ago – almost to the day.
And here are a couple of photos from back in 2010, when your Tennis.Life correspondent got off the plane and went straight to the AELTC – and these were the first two players we saw.
Serena in the toughest of tough quarters
Serena was a finalist here a year ago in her first Wimbledon back after giving birth to daughter Olympia.
So she is defending a whole lot of points.
She also hasn’t played since a rather desultory third-round loss to Sofia Kenin in the third round of the French Open.
Williams had murmured a little about maybe taking a wild card into a grass prep event. But in the end, she didn’t do it.
The section of the draw has seven qualifiers, two lucky losers and one wild card. So you’d think – cake, right? Except for the rest of the quarter.
Barty, Vekic, former champs Muguruza and Kerber, Georges, Bencic, and even Sharapova are in this section, which begins play Tuesday.
So Williams’ first-round opponent is good draw luck: qualifier Giulia Gatto-Monticone of Italy.
Gatto-Monticone is ranked No. 162. That’s fine, except that it’s close to her career-best ranking. And she’ll be … 32 in November. Her career earnings of just over $300,000 are about $88.5 million less than Williams has earned.
It’s the Italian’s first Wimbledon main draw. And it’s only her second career Grand Slam main draw after she qualified in Paris last month, and took Kenin to three sets in the first round.
(Two rounds later, Kenin beat Serena in straight sets. So that’s about the only connection between them).
After that, it gets a little complicated. Maybe Julia Goerges in the third round. Perhaps Kerber – in a rematch of last year’s final – in the round of 16. And all that with Barty, Muguruza or Bencic as a possible quarterfinal opponent.
Venus gets high-profile May-December opener
For her part, unseeded Venus is in the very bottom quarter of the draw, the one anchored by No. 2 seed Naomi Osaka.
But her opener is a fascinating one – technically, a March-June encounter.
She’ll play countrywoman Coco Gauff, who qualified this week after receiving a wild card.
“Countrywoman” is a stretch, as Gauff is 15. Venus is 39.
Who’s looking forward to that one?
There are some big hitters in this section (Tomljanovic, Azarenka, Sabalenka, Giorgi) but not many proven champions.
It’s hard to know what kind of form Venus is in – she took a wild card into the Birmingham grass event, and lost in the quarters to Barty.
But if she gets past the first one, she could get the big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka next. And then, maybe, Madison Keys, with Simona Halep looming before reaching Osaka-Wozniacki territory.
It’s tough. But it’s not as tough a road as her sister has.
PARIS – You feel like Serena Williams still wants to play tennis.
No matter how much you’ve won, how much you’ve made, the competitive fire that helped get you there doesn’t just disappear from one day to the next.
But if her body isn’t up to it, she just shouldn’t play until it is. Because this Serena is not the Serena anyone – including Serena, probably – wants to leave behind as a final act.
We know Williams is chasing some history, which seems to be running a little ahead of her at the moment, extending slightly more out of her grasp each day.
But one thing we know: Williams didn’t come back to lose to Sofia Kenin in the third round of the French Open. Or to anyone else, for that matter.
She came back to pick up those two major titles she needs to get to 25, and put that all-time number – Open era record or Margaret Court record – out of reach. Also, because this is what she’s done her whole life. And because she loves to compete and win. And, yes, of course, because she’s brand building for her post-playing career.
The way the fairy tale was supposed to play out, Williams would have won last year’s Wimbledon and US Open and hit “that” number. And then, she would have made whatever decision is right for herself and her family.
But it didn’t happen. A veteran named Angelique Kerber and a newbie named Naomi Osaka thwarted that perfect ending.
And now, she finds herself with a conundrum on her hands.
Regression, not progression
If Williams she wasn’t quite ready when she returned 15 months ago at Indian Wells, we thought surely she’d be back in the groove by now, right?
But she’s not progressing. She’s regressing.
Fellow American Kenin, Williams’s opponent in their third-round match Saturday, didn’t seem overawed or intimidated during her 6-2, 7-5 third-round victory, mind you.
The 20-year-old went after it. She played the ball, not the opponent. And she didn’t give up a single point without a fight.
This is a reflection on where Williams sits. It’s no knock at all on the young woman born in Moscow, who now lives a long Hail Mary pass away from the new home of the Miami Open.
She played the Serena she had in front of her, and she beat her fair and square.
After winning the match, Kenin could barely look up at the handshake. Playing the tennis to beat 2019 Serena was something she could do. Looking straight into her eyes of the legend at the net afterwards was actually a more daunting prospect. Even if Williams could not have been more gracious.
But this was not the old Serena. It wasn’t even “old Serena”. It was the Serena we have at the moment. And it’s a bit of a painful version of Serena.
No Serena roar
Only for a few games later on in the second set against Kenin did Williams have that look on her face. You know the one. The “I’m gonna shove that ball down your effing throat” look. The one that’s usually punctuated by a big increase in decibel level. The one that tells the opponent, “You’re not going to beat me. You’re going to have to kill me first.”
It didn’t last. Williams was most often limited to a couple of steps in each direction. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t in control of her own destiny.
And that, after 20 years at the top of the game, is what stands out.
Until Williams went off on maternity leave, through her injuries and health issues and periodic breaks, you always felt that every match she played was on her racket.
If she wanted it to happen, it was going to happen. She would will it to happen. And most often her opponents bent to that superior will, because it was backed by superior talent.
In Williams’s brief appearances on tour since her return, that hasn’t been there often enough.
Wimbledon and the US Open
After three wins at the 2018 French Open, her first major after coming back, she won three rounds. But then she withdrew from a match against Maria Sharapova with a pectoral injury.
Williams regrouped quickly. Her next tournament was Wimbledon where, still unseeded, she reached the final. But lost in history is the the fact that she did not have to face a top-50 player until the semis
And when she did, it was Julia Goerges who, in 41 straight Grand Slam tournaments had not even made a major quarterfinal, let alone a semifinal.
But still, she made it.
Williams won only one match until she put together a fabulous US Open – until the final, of course. No need to rehash that one.
But then she didn’t play for the rest of the season.
After only a few matches in the summer, Williams returned for real at the US Open. And she made the final again. Her run to that final, in terms of quality of opposition, was far more impressive than the run at Wimbledon.
But then she ran into Osaka. And then she didn’t play the rest of the year.
Williams returned for the Australian Open in January and did … okay. She had won all her singles matches in the exhibition Hopman Cup event that led up to it.
She hurt her ankle in Australia. The knee is bothering her. She was sick at Indian Wells and retired in her second match, against Garbiñe Muguruza. She pulled out of Miami before her second match, against No. 18 Qiang Wang. And she pulled out of Rome before her second-round match against her sister.
It was within the realm of possibility that Williams would skip Paris entirely.
“I’m just pretty far away (from her best shape), but that’s the optimistic part is I haven’t been able to be on the court as much as I would have. That’s okay. At least I can start trying to put the time in now,” Williams said.
“I am glad I came. You know, I love the city, and I love the tournament. I really wanted to be here. So I’m glad I came, at the end of the day,” she added.
More matches needed
It’s not a state secret that Williams needs to play. Earlier in her career, when she played less than average, she was able to swoop in and pick up titles. There was that time in Australia in 2007 when she arrived rusty, heavy and out of shape. But she played her way into form and won the tournament. But she was only 25 then. A lifetime ago.
“I’m definitely feeling short on matches, and just getting in the swing of things. I don’t really like playing out points when I practice,” she said. “I have some time on my hands, so maybe I’ll jump in and get a wildcard on one of these grass court events and see what happens.”
Williams perhaps is realizing that it’s going to be a more challenging task than she thought it would be to own her own piece of history.
The question is, is she ready to pay the price?
And, more crucially, will her body allow her to do what’s necessary? If she tries to play more, will she get hurt more? These days, it seems like she’s getting hurt when she plays at all.
She’s Serena Williams. Never count her out. Ever. But she has to make a move. Because losing in the third round of a major to Sofia Kenin – or anyone – is not why she came back.
This is, in its own way, the biggest challenge of her career.
It was like déja vu for Serena Williams, back to the last time she played tennis.
At the Miami Open two months ago, the 37-year-old met Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson in her opening match. She won it – and then pulled out of the tournament before she was to face Qiang Wang in the next round.
On Monday in Rome, Williams defeated Peterson again. And Tuesday, the day before she was due to meet sister Venus in the second round, she pulled out of the tournament – again.
The culprit is the same left knee. It’s not the first time she’s had an issue with that knee over her long career. But at this stage, it’s definitely more of a concern.
The Italian Open is only Williams’s fourth tournament of the season. And she still has only completed one.
The American lost 7-5 in the third set to Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. You remember that one; after upsetting No. 1 Simona Halep in the previous round, she was up 5-1 in the third set and had four match points before Pliskova came all the way back.
And even that one wasn’t straightforward, after Williams rolled her ankle late in the match.
Ankle, viral illness, knee – and knee
At Indian Wells, a viral illness led to “dizziness and extreme fatigue”, and Williams retired early in the second set of her match against Garbiñe Muguruza after a hard-fought victory over Victoria Azarenka in her opener.
“I must withdraw from the Italian Open due to pain in my left knee. I will miss the fans and competition at one of my favorite tournaments.
“I’ll be concentrating on rehab and look forward to seeing you all at the French Open and next year in Rome.”
Williams seemed in very good spirits during an interview with the Tennis Channel after her first-round win. Turns out, she’s a better actress than we think.
She said she felt “good, really good”. And that she wasn’t sure how she was going to feel, because she “didn’t have a lot of time to get myself together.”
The spirit is willing, the body less so
Of course, if Williams could only get through one match after a two-month break, it’s hard to see how another two weeks will measurably improve her chances to make a serious run in Paris. But hope springs eternal.
It’s ironic that, earlier in their careers, the Williams played relatively little compared to other players. And some of that was because of outside interests – and because they were so good, they didn’t have to play a huge number of weeks to keep winning.
But now, in the twilight of her career and after returning from maternity leave, Serena Williams says she really wants to play. But her body isn’t letting her.
Sister Venus, who needed over three hours and nine match points to defeat Elise Mertens in her own first-round match Monday, thus gets a walkover to the third round.
She’ll play the winner between No. 7 seed Sloane Stephens and Johanna Konta.
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Venus and and Serena Williams will never forget why they didn’t come to the BNP Paribas Open for nearly 15 years.
No one is likely to, any time soon.
But now that they made the decision to return – first Serena in 2015, then her sister a year later – it all just seems so … normal.
The sisters met up and chatted on adjoining courts Tuesday, with Venus having already practiced inside Stadium 1.
During perhaps the longest-ever ankle tape job (more than 20 minutes), the sisters gabbed. And then, as Serena went through her paces with hitting partner Jarmere Jenkins, they took another little break later, as Venus headed off to the rest of her day.
The moments when you see the two together at tournaments are fairly rare. They don’t practice together on site much. And while both prefer early-morning practice slots, they often follow each other.
It’s just a reminder about how the very best, most incredible thing about their legacy is their unbreakable bond, their sisterhood.
It’s hard to even fathom having two champions of such stature in the same family. And for them to be competitive when they meet on court, to have one surpass the other, but to have never have et it affect their sisterhood, is a life lesson for all.
Here’s what it looked like.
As you can see, there were people packed into every available spot within even a long-distance view of the sisters.
Enjoy the pics and videos. Who knows how many more times we’ll see it.
Then-CEO Stacey Allaster said the event represented 35-40 percent of the tour’s net operating revenues. And that the deal was worth more than the $14 million US a year it generated during the three-year stint in Istanbul.
The prize money for the first year in 2014 was upped to $6.5 million, as Allaster said it would rise more from there over the length of the deal.
That didn’t really happen, to any significant extent. It was raised to $7 million in 2015 – and remained at that level for the rest of the Singapore stay.
We covered the inaugural event in 2014, which seemed to create a fair amount of engagement in the city and was spectacularly well put on by the organizers.
(The players were: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and, in her career-making 2014 season finale, Genie Bouchard. There was a significant amount of star power for this one, with some of the most high-profile and popular players in recent years).
Here are some of the pics from that year.
Yes, there are a lot of photos of Bouchard. That was the main reason for being there, as the lone Canadian journalist. But there also are photos of the scenes, the other players and the activities.
In the press room:
Genie Bouchard – with Halep, Williams and Ivanovic:
The attendance was impressive – announced at 129,000 for the first year. That was a bit misleading, as the WTA’s report at the time indicates that number was for fans attracted “to the Singapore Sports Hub during the 10 days of tennis, entertainment and business.”
The actual match attendance was put at “more than 93,000” through 14 sessions, including three reserved for the “Rising Stars” event featured the first couple of years. That’s an average of 6,642 per session, with the final being the last of four sellouts, at 9,986 fans.
Attendance numbers well-spun
Attendance for the second edition in 2015 was announced at 130,000, but over 18 sessions. While it was difficult to judge the fullness of the stands with the dark lighting, sources on site indicated that they weren’t nearly as full as the first year.
That’s not unusual, as the first year was impressive. And in any event of this nature, the novelty is more likely than not to wear off by Year 2 in an area of the planet without any sort of established tennis tradition.
For 2016, the WTA Tour didn’t announce any official attendance figure.
In 2017, the WTA announced attendance as 133,000, over only 11 sessions with no legends, and the straight-elimination doubles draw. By those numbers, the event would have had 11 sellouts, plus another 23,000 fans attending the experience. Might be a little … optimistic.
This year, there’s been no number announced although, as we laid out here, there were plenty of good seats available for every session.
WTA CEO Steve Simon, in his season-ending press conference last week, said he expected a record.
“I think that you can see that through this year we will have record attendance again. I believe it will exceed last year’s 133,000 people. You have seen it the first few nights at the event. You have seen it in the evolution of the fans here,” Simon said.
Law of diminishing returns
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from Singapore is that a five-year stay helps create, as Allaster said when the venue was announced, financial stability. But in a country without an established tennis fan base – the type of fan base you need to fill an arena for a week or more – it’s a challenge to keep an event growing.
The players who would attract the less-than-diehard tennis fans – notably, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – have not been annual attendees.
Williams played only once in Singapore – the first year in 2014, when she defeated Halep in the final.
Sharapova qualified in 2014 (exiting after the pool stage) and 2015 (undefeated in the round robin, but out in the semifinals to Kvitova). But she hasn’t played since.
The challenge with the new 10-year commitment in Shenzhen, China will be the same – except double.
Shenzhen has double the population base to draw from. And it’s also near several other large population hubs. And it does have somewhat more of a tennis tradition with annual WTA and ATP Tour events held there.
Simon told the New York Times the deal was actually worth in excess of that figure. But that number includes the reported $450 million to be spent on the new indoor arena to be built, which the WTA won’t actually own, “and other real-estate elements”. Simon also said that the share of the WTA’s total revenues generated by the event is now less than that 35-40 per cent figure stated a few years ago by Allaster.
(After the first two years of the five-year deal with beIN, the rights in the U.S. have switched over to the Tennis Channel for 2019).
The new arena in Shenzhen won’t be ready in time for the inaugural edition in 2019.
Farewell Singapore, hello Shenzhen
The main priority, though, is that the WTA be able to create a lasting, significant tennis tradition in new its home.
The WTA couldn’t confirm that the annual WTA stop in Shenzhen, which takes place just two months after the Tour Finals, would survive. So it may have to find another home in Asia (or Australia, for that matter) for a tournament amidst a tricky time within the game.
The ATP Tour is planning a team event beginning in 2020. And that tournament looks to taking place in several venues where there are currently joint WTA/ATP events. Among the possibilities are Perth (where the Hopman Cup is in danger). Also being considered are Brisbane (well-attended by the top WTA players) and Sydney, the week before the Australian Open.
Shenzhen is so far away from North America and Europe that it’s not going to be able to count on hordes of women’s tennis fans making the long, expensive trip. So it’s going to have to find its market around that part of China. That was, of course, also true in Singapore.
There are enough people in the area; that’s for sure. The challenge will be get them to the event, and keep them coming.