New venue, new generation, new era. The future of women’s tennis will be on show for the next eight days as the best eight players of 2019 contest the Shiseido WTA Finals here in one of the Far East’s most dynamic cities.
The year-end tournament is being held in China for the first time in its 48-year history and, fittingly enough, the field reflects the changing times in the sport. The average age of the players is just 24, with 29-year-old Petra Kvitova and 28-year-old Simona Halep the two oldest in the line-up.
With Serena Williams failing to finish in the world’s top eight – though it was by no means certain that she would have chosen to play here even if she had qualified – the tournament is being seen by many as a shoot-out between three young players who have lit up the year with their triumphs at Grand Slam tournaments.
Naomi Osaka, aged 22, won her second successive Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty claimed her first at the French Open in June and 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who had begun the year ranked outside the world’s top 150, crowned a remarkable campaign by winning last month’s US Open. Osaka made her debut in this tournament last year, while Barty has only ever played in the doubles event and Andreescu will be making her first appearance.
Osaka will open proceedings on Sunday when she takes on Kvitova in a rematch of their Australian Open final, with Barty facing Belinda Bencic in the other match in the round-robin Red Group. The Purple Group, which might provide an easier route to the semi-finals, brings together Andreescu, Halep, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina, who is the defending champion. The top two in each group proceed to the last four.
“It's an incredible group of players,” Barty said. “It’s very special being here in singles, having had a bit of a taste of it in the doubles the last two years. I’m really excited to have an opportunity now after a fantastic year to try and finish really well.”
Kvitova, who pointed out that she had won this tournament at the age of 21 on her debut in 2011, admitted that it felt “pretty weird” to be the oldest player in the field and said that she and Halep had joked about being the veterans. “The new faces are coming,” Kvitova said. “It’s normal that the generations are changing.”
Halep, who is back working with her coach Darren Cahill after he took off the rest of the year for family reasons, said the younger players had done “a fantastic job” to win Grand Slam titles and said they provided a major challenge to the older players.
“Tennis is growing up, tennis is going ahead, so we have to adjust ourselves to everything that's new,” Halep said. “Things have changed. The young players now have more courage. They have open minds. They have more power than players had 10 years ago. It feels like when they play the big players they are not as nervous as we were. I think it's a big plus for them. That's why we have more young players in the top 10.”
Andreescu meanwhile insisted that age “is just a number”. She added: “I think anyone can accomplish anything at any age if they really want it. I think I proved that. Petra proved that. Serena proved that. Right now I don't think I have much pressure on my shoulders going into this tournament. It's my first WTA Finals. I know I'm coming off a really good year this year, but I'm just going to go out there like any other tournament.”
Osaka, meanwhile, revealed that after parting company with two coaches this year she would be working here with her father. “It seems to be working so far,” she said before adding with a smile: “Let's see if I fire him."
Shenzhen will be the home of this tournament for the next 10 years. Just half an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong, it is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. Forty years ago it was just a small fishing village, but today it is a major centre for high-tech industry and has a population of more than 12 million. The tournament, which also features the eight most successful doubles teams of the year, is staged at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center, a huge sports complex near the waterfront.
A total of $14m (about £10.9m) in prize money is at stake, with the eventual champion winning between $4.1m (£3.2m) and $4.7m (£3.7m), depending on their results in the round-robin matches. That will make it the biggest ever pay cheque awarded in men’s or women’s tennis, beating the $3.85m (£3m) won by both Andreescu and Rafael Nadal at last month’s US Open. Meanwhile even players who lose all their group matches are guaranteed to take home $385,000 (£300,000).
With such huge prize money on offer, every match is expected to be highly competitive. “In my opinion, I don't think there is a favourite,” Barty said. “Everyone has earned their place here and on any given day anyone can be beaten.”
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