Women's tennis hits peak - but where are the stars?
Record crowds, record money, but questions over quality
If you can't beat them, join them. As the best female players in the world gathered here for their season's finale, the head of the Women's Tennis Association revealed yesterday that talks have been held about combining the men's and women's end-of-year championships.
The WTA Championships, featuring the top eight women, begin here today, four weeks before the leading men do battle at London's O2 Arena. While men's tennis has probably never been stronger, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray sweeping all before them, the women's game has been struggling to produce champions capable of capturing the public's imagination.
Stacey Allaster, WTA chairman and chief executive, believes that one way ahead for the women is to develop closer links with the men. "Combined events are very successful for our sport," Allaster said in Istanbul. "There's no doubt that fans enjoy seeing men and women compete on the same stage. We've talked about combining the two year-end championships, but there's no easy solution with our calendar and the guys' calendar."
While the WTA has shortened its season, the length of the men's schedule remains an issue, although the leading players are pushing hard for changes. "The guys are focused on their calendar," Allaster said. "We were able to make the changes to ours. If we could ever have them aligned, it's something that we would be open to exploring."
The men's and women's tours have been working together in several areas. "Wherever it makes sense to cooperate, we're looking for those opportunities," Allaster said. "I'm very committed to trying to combine our international broadcast rights, starting in 2017. That will be the first time that both tours have their rights aligned to be able to be sold at the same time."
Judged purely on statistics, the women's game is in fine shape. Despite the recession, the WTA has attracted five new sponsors in the last 18 months, leading to a 60 per cent increase in revenues, while prize money has gone up 36 per cent, with another seven per cent rise projected next year. Record crowds are attending tournaments – there has been a 12 per cent increase at the tour's main events this year – and the number of television viewers has risen by 73 per cent.
Meanwhile Istanbul, keen to host major events as part of its campaign to stage the 2020 Olympic Games, is said to have paid $36m (about £22.6m) up front for the right to hold these championships for the next three years.
However, as the year's top players assemble here for the first time, has there ever been an occasion in the 39-year history of these championships when the line-up has been so unrecognisable to the wider public? In the absence of Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, who failed to make the field after injury-troubled seasons, it is doubtful whether any of the players other than Maria Sharapova and perhaps Caroline Wozniacki would cause much of a stir if they walked down a street anywhere outside their home countries.
Li Na (French Open), Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon) and Samantha Stosur (US Open) all won their first Grand Slam titles this year but have been in such poor form subsequently that Kvitova is the only one to have won a tournament, having claimed a minor event in Austria this month. Victoria Azarenka has reached just one Grand Slam semi-final in her career, while Agnieszka Radwanska has never gone beyond a quarter-final. Even appearing in two Grand Slam finals last year did little to raise Vera Zvonareva's profile.
Meanwhile Wozniacki has yet to win a Grand Slam. Although the world No 1 is the most consistent player on the tour and has won six tournaments this year, the 21-year-old Dane has regularly disappointed at the very highest level, having lost in the semi-finals of three of the last five Grand Slam events. Wozniacki can be an engaging personality and has the looks to attract sponsors – she models Stella McCartney's range of tennis clothes – but her continuing failure to land one of the biggest prizes means that she has yet to emerge as a major figure.
Women's tennis has thrived on past rivalries, such as that between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, or on the domination of one player, like Steffi Graf or Martina Hingis. The Williams sisters have often ruled at Grand Slam events since the turn of the century, but their failure to shine in other tournaments – not to mention their regular failure even to participate in them – has meant they have not dominated in the way some of their predecessors have.
Four different players have won Grand Slam titles this year and there have been seven different finalists, Li being the only player to have featured in two finals. Nevertheless, Allaster sees that as evidence of strength in depth.
"We've had a fantastic 2011 ... with the new stars really emerging and winning their first Grand Slams," Allaster said. "The fact we've had 10 different nations represented in the top 10 and the fact Caroline hasn't won her first Grand Slam hasn't had any impact on the business."
Tournament organisers here have toned down their build-up in recent days – a lavish pre-event party was cancelled at late notice – as a sign of respect for both the 24 soldiers killed by Kurdish militants in an attack last week and the hundreds who died in Sunday's earthquake in the east of the country.
However, they will be hoping that interest builds during the battle to decide who finishes the year as world No 1. Wozniacki is certain to stay on top if she wins the title or reaches the final and wins at least two of her three round-robin matches. The most likely challenger to her will be Sharapova.
The eight players are split into two round-robin groups. The top two in each section go forward to Saturday's semi-finals, which are followed by the final on Sunday.
Red Group C Wozniacki (Den), P Kvitova (Czech Rep), V Zvonareva (Rus), A Radwanska (Pol).
White Group M Sharapova (Rus), V Azarenka (Belar), Li Na (China), S Stosur (Aus).
Today’s order of play (3pm BST start): Kvitova v Zvonareva; Wozniacki v Radwanska; Sharapova v Stosur.
Venue Sinan Erdem Arena, Istanbul.
Prize money $4.9m (approx £3.1m)
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