After two decades of wandering the globe, the WTA Finals had finally found a home, or so it seemed in 2019.
That was the first year the finals were held, to great fanfare, in Shenzhen, China, under a deal that would keep the tournament there for 10 years.
The event has not been back since, and on Wednesday it will instead be played in Guadalajara, Mexico, after an agreement in September.
The tournament, which has been played under different names over the years, has long been a bit nomadic. It was held at Madison Square Garden from 1979 to 2000 and has moved five times from 2001 to 2013. It then spent five years in Singapore.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament, the first time it had not been held since the finals began nearly 50 years ago, when the finals were called the Virginia Slims Championships.
This year, with the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara, that means some players will be competing in one of the biggest tournaments outside of the Grand Slams in the third different city in the last three finals.
“I personally don’t care if the location changes every year; it’s always exciting to be able to compete in the event,” said Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who qualified three times from 2015 to 2017 and is one of the eight players invited to play singles this year.
For months, the WTA planned a return to Shenzhen, while having parallel discussions with other cities, including Hong Kong.
“Knowing the situation was less than clear, we had a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” said Micky Lawler, the WTA president. “We wanted to give our top players a chance to compete the way they deserved to end 2021, but putting on events is really tough during a pandemic, and circumstances keep changing and are out of your control.”
The tour ended up going with Plan D: Guadalajara.
“It’s very difficult to plan an event at this scale, and they offered a great solution in a market where we already had a tournament,” Lawler said, referring to the lower-level tournament held there in March. (The No. 1 seed was 46th-ranked Nadia Podoroska of Argentina.)
The WTA was impressed by the team that ran that tournament, but also there was no Plan E, Lawler said. “This wasn’t a situation of ‘Let’s choose between places,’” she said. “It was, ‘We don’t want a second year in a row without a WTA Finals, so let’s put all our resources together and make this work.’”
Lawler said that Steve Simon, the WTA chief executive, was running weekly board meetings and that the tour held constant discussions with the players and the sponsors. “Everyone’s attitude was that this was not what we planned for, but they would support it because it was better than no tournament.”
While Lawler is certain that there will be challenges — she points to a sudden Covid-related lockdown that started during a recent tournament in Moscow — she is confident that they will be surmountable. Many of the players are certainly eager for the tournament, even if there are obstacles. (The exception is Ashleigh Barty, the tour’s top-ranked player and the defending champion. She is skipping the tournament to avoid another stint in quarantine after returning to her native Australia.)
Karolina Pliskova said reaching the WTA Finals was always a personal goal when the season started. This is her fifth straight year at the tournament, making her the only player besides Muguruza with experience in the event. The newcomers competing in singles are Paula Badosa, Anett Kontaveit, Barbora Krejcikova, Aryna Sabalenka, Maria Sakkari and Iga Swiatek.
Pliskova, who is the only person to play in Singapore, Shenzhen and now Guadalajara over three consecutive WTA Finals, said the shift in locales erased some of her advantage.
“It’s better for players who have never played in the tournament because if it was in the same place each year, players who had been there would know how the courts play and know all the activities and would feel more relaxed,” she said. “This year, everybody is basically starting from zero.”
The biggest difference between Guadalajara and pretty much any other WTA Finals location is the altitude. The city is about 5,000 feet above sea level, which will make the ball fly faster but trickier to control, while also challenging players to catch their breath after long rallies.
“The altitude is a salient factor, and it came up in conversations with the players, but everyone’s in the same boat,” Lawler said, adding that it is no different from having a surface that favors certain players. “These players are the best of the best, so while some will love it less, they’re going to adjust.”
Krejcikova said that she had no experience playing at that altitude, but that she did not care about how it would change the game. “I’m just happy to be going to the WTA Finals,” she said. “I always wanted to play against the other top players to see where my level is.”
She said that she believed that the bigger hitters and servers might benefit from getting extra velocity on their power shots, resulting in shorter points, but that she would not decide how to adjust her game until she practiced there.
Muguruza said the strongest players might benefit from the altitude. But the extra velocity comes with a catch. “It will be the ones who can control their power who will have more opportunities,” she said, because balls could easily sail long or wide.
Pliskova said she might change the tension on her strings to give her more control or more spin.
“I don’t want to change too much — my game is my game — but I may change a little,” she said, adding that someone who was good at defending might benefit if players could not control their shots, as long as they were in good enough condition to handle long points at that altitude.
Although the WTA hopes to return the finals to Shenzhen in 2022, there is hope that this rare visit from the game’s best players will give the sport a boost in Mexico. Heather Bowler, a spokeswoman for the International Tennis Federation, said in an email that at the recreational and amateur level Mexico had the lowest ratio in the region of players to population and the lowest percentage of female players.
“Bringing an elite-level tournament, WTA Finals will drive awareness and increase an appetite for the game, so it certainly is a good basis on which to build on in the future,” she wrote, “and the WTA should be a great catalyst for sport in the region and for Mexico as a nation.”
Lawler said that while nothing was in the works, increased interest could eventually lead to bigger tournaments and more resources for young players in the region, creating a positive cycle. “If there is an appetite to build something in Mexico, we would do everything we can to support it,” she said.
Krejcikova said she thought about the way the sport and the players were seen by girls at every tournament, but especially when it was someplace new.
“I hope we are good examples for them,” she said, “and can have a big impact on the younger generation in Mexico.”