Monday, October 19, 2015

Potholes in the Road to Singapore

The Women's Tennis Association is a great and historic organization that has provided me and many others with countless hours of entertainment thanks to its amazing athletes and personalities. It gets a lot of stuff right and has thrived for decades in ways that many other sports organizations should rightfully feel envious.

Why, then, is it having such problems this year with its year-end tournament?

The WTA Finals are the jewel of the WTA season - the capstone tournament in which a great deal of time, attention, energy and money is invested. It should be, from a public-facing perspective at least, as smooth as sailing gets. And yet several things have taken place this year that have made the entire process leading up to the event confusing, frustrating, and problematic for fans. Now, I will admit to being far from an expert as to the intricacies of how Finals qualifying works, but several things have transpired recently that have proved to be potholes on this year's Road to Singapore (RTS).

1) Earlier this month, tennis fans were taken a bit aback by the news that the Luxembourg international-level tournament taking place this week doesn't count in the RTS. This, apparently, is due to its final taking place on Sunday, the same day that Singapore starts. However, Moscow, with a Saturday final, does count in the RTS. Did the Luxembourg tournament know this? It's not entirely clear. More importantly, did 9th-place Timea Bacsinszky know this before signing up for Luxembourg? She's only 20 points behind #8 Flavia Pennetta. (Note: Bacsinszky also wasn't awarded a late WC into last week's Linz tournament, which did count in the RTS.) So a woman who was the best stories of the first half of the year is left out in the low-country cold.

2) The ramifications of not counting Luxembourg extended to doubles. Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova sit in 9th place in the doubles RTS, 250 points behind Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears, to whom they lost in the Linz final. With 470 points at stake in Moscow, the Czechs could have kept their hopes alive with a great run there. I believe it's the case that titles in Linz and Luxembourg also could have put them in Singapore. However, Hradecka had already signed up to play Luxembourg and, as Hradecka's coach tweeted me, the WTA wouldn't allow her to withdraw, pay a fine, and take her doubles chances in Moscow.
(We shouldn't put too much stock in the Linz final result, as by the time it was played, the Americans had been announced as the 8th and final WTA Finals team, clearly changing the motivation for all four players.)

3) 12th-place Karolina Pliskova was provided with a Moscow wild card, while 10th-place Venus Williams wasn't. Now, according to the Moscow tournament director, Venus didn't ask for a wild card, so that (perhaps) moots this particular point (h/t Oleg S.). (Although in the same interview, said tournament director said her manager had been "in talks" with the tournament, whatever that means.) But what if she had asked for one? This possibility raises some big questions:
  • Was Octogon - which represents Pliskova and runs the Moscow tournament - involved in the decision to grant their player a wild card? If so, given the mad rush for points at the end of the year, shouldn't we give that decision particular scrutiny? Face it: usually there's not a lot of finagling for those Premier-but-not-Premier-Mandatory-or-Premier-5 Top 20 wild cards earlier in the year. The end of the year is when the rubber hits the road - when players know if they're in the running or not. In this way, not all equal-points tournaments have equal value for RTS purposes.
  • Was Shamil Tarpischev involved in the wild card decision? And after what Tarpischev, who serves as head of the board of the Moscow tournament, said about her and Serena Williams, would Venus even really want to play that tournament, especially if another tournament was played at the same time (and if that tournament counted)? Should the boss of a middling tournament get this much power over a player he seemingly doesn't like?
4) Then there was the embarrassing situation this morning during which the WTA announced Angelique Kerber had qualified for Singapore, then took it back. At some point in there, Kerber announced her withdrawal from Moscow. Now, the WTA claims Kerber was aware she hadn't qualified for Singapore when she announced her withdrawal in Moscow. Perhaps that's true; either way it's yet another black eye.
Let's face it: the way things are now, qualifying for the finals is a convoluted process and WTA staff have had to do a lot of work figuring out and explaining the various permutations over the last few weeks. Such slip-ups are more likely when such convolutions exist.

5) Finally, there's the ongoing issue with the tour moving to East Asia for the end of the year, then some Top 20 players flying to Europe for a week, then potentially having to wait until the final day before they know whether they have to fly back to East Asia for the WTA Finals that start the following day. With only Linz, Luxembourg, and Moscow remaining from what was not too long ago a 7-tournament, 5-week European indoor swing, surely it's time to revisit how the end of the year plays out.

(I haven't even brought up the 2013 Kerber/Moser catastrophe in Linz, or the fact that the #1 player of the year, Serena Williams, isn't playing this year's Finals.)

The ATP gets plenty wrong, but I think they're spot-on by making the final tournament of the regular season (Paris Bercy) one in which all of the top players are automatically entered. It cuts down on the confusion and focuses all eyes on a major event, rather than the 5 relatively minor ones the WTA has to end their regular season.  The Paris Masters 1000 event also nicely ties together the three-week European indoor swing that feeds in directly to the WTF, which is also in Europe (after a week-long break, which also makes sense).

The way it works now, some players get that one final shot at making the WTA Finals and some don't, and who does and who doesn't get that shot is based partly on off-court factors. That needs to change.

So how can this be fixed? I see four possible options, mostly looking forward to 2017 and 2018 when the WTA Finals will still be in Singapore and calendar changes can be more easily implemented:

1) Put the three-tournament fall European indoor season earlier in the calendar - either immediately after the US Open or way back in February. Have Beijing be the final regular season event prior to Singapore. I'm guessing that there are some issues with the calendar and Chinese holidays but I'm sure Beijing officials wouldn't mind if it meant their tournament was where the final Singapore draw was set. And given what would be greater calendar proximity to Singapore, it could mean more top players would feel okay doing the China/Singapore double, then going home to Europe, North America, etc.

2) Keep the three-tournament fall European indoor season where it is but stop counting points earned there in that year's RTS.  This would help set the Singapore field earlier and get rid of issues around wild cards, which give far too much power to a couple of tournament directors.

3) Get rid of the three-tournament fall European indoor season entirely. They got rid of Zurich, Filderstadt, and Leipzig after all. Perhaps this has been their plan all along?

4) Keep everything as it is but move Singapore back a week. This way they can count every tournament even if it has a Sunday final, give players an extra week to get back from Europe, and allow for a bigger build-up to the WTA Finals.

As far as Singapore itself goes, it seems to have been a successful tournament last year and I'm confident it will continue to draw big crowds and generate big attention in the coming years. But in the future, the WTA would do well to streamline and increase transparency along the Road there. It will only help to increase the worldwide excitement and lessen fan frustration.

Fix those potholes!

Readers: What do you think? Let me know what I'm missing, if anything, below in the comments, and vote in the poll!

How would you fix the Road to Singapore?

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