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The WTA has reached an inflection point
And friends? I'm worried.
On Monday, Iga Swiatek soundly beat Jessica Pegula 6-1, 6-0 to win the WTA Finals. With the win, she regained the No. 1 ranking from Aryna Sabalenka and firmly established herself as the best player in the world. It was, anyway you spin in, a blockbuster week for the four-time major champion.
Unfortunately, it was not as good of a week for the WTA as a whole. The WTA Finals are the most prestigious event on the WTA calendar, where the top eight players in singles (and doubles) battle in a round-robin format to find out who will be crowned the WTA year-end champion. It’s supposed to be a time to celebrate the women on the WTA Tour and the 2023 season as a whole.
But this year, the poor conditions in Cancun, absent leadership, and reports of internal rebellions from top players left the most successful and prominent women’s sports organization in history at a crossroads.
The most obvious problems last week took place on the court – quite literally. The WTA didn’t announce that Cancun was hosting this event until early September, giving organizers less than two months of lead time. Under ideal circumstances, organizers have years to prepare for hosting such a significant event. So, things were off from the start.
The court and stadium were still being constructed just days before the tournament began; players weren’t allowed to practice on the court until the day before play started. And when they finally got to test the courts out, they were disappointed in the quality. Sabalenka, the No. 1 player in the world at the start of the tournament, was one of the most outspoken critics.
"To be honest, I don't feel safe moving on this court a lot of the time," Sabalenka said.
"The bounce is not consistent at all and we weren't able to practice on this court until yesterday for the first time. It's just not acceptable to me with so much on the line and so much at stake.
"As I said in my press conference tonight, as a player I really feel disrespected by the WTA. I think most of us do."
Ons Jabeur echoed these sentiments.
“I'm not very happy that this is the first day we hit on the stadium. This is such a big event. We should have been able to be ready and hit on the court, Jabeur said. “Yeah, hopefully this will never, ever, ever happen again. Like ever.”
To make matters worse, the weather conditions during the tournament were absolutely horrible — almost every day saw rain delays, and the swirling winds were not conducive to quality tennis. Eventually, the singles and doubles finals both had to be moved to Monday instead of Sunday, which really caused problems for players who were scheduled to participate in the Billie Jean King Cup, the team event that takes place this week. The most frustrating thing? All of this was predictable — the tournament took place during rainy season in Mexico, after all, and the temporary stadium was constructed very near the water.
None of this is meant to be a knock on the tournament organizers, who got the event together in a ridiculously condensed time period, or the fans, who were extremely passionate and supportive of the players, despite the trying conditions. Rather, it’s just a startling reflection of organizational shortcomings within the WTA itself.
The bigger picture
Look, if the problems in the WTA right now were just about the inadequacy of one court, then solutions would be pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, the problems run much, much deeper than that.
Over at The Athletic, Matthew Futterman has been doing phenomenal reporting on the state of affairs between players and tour leadership, and friends? It’s not great. I highly encourage you to read all of Futterman’s reporting. He reveals that after months – even years – of frustrations, players had a series of meetings at the China Open in October and decided to present their concerns to WTA CEO Steve Simon in a formal capacity.
Here’s an excerpt from Futterman’s piece, “WTA facing rebellion from numerous top players over pay and conditions on women’s tour:”
The discussions in China culminated with a three-page, single-spaced letter sent on October 5 and signed by Sabalenka and 20 other leading players, including Elena Rybakina and Marketa Vondrousova, the last two Wimbledon champions, and Ons Jabeur, a three-time Grand Slam finalist.
The players requested immediate consideration of their needs for higher pay, a more flexible schedule that is more physically and mentally sustainable, expanded childcare and official representation on the WTA Players Council from their own, independent player organization, the nascent Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), which Novak Djokovic co-founded in 2020.
The letter, which The Athletic has seen, ended with a request for “a written, substantive response to this letter and each requested improvement with a clear commitment by the WTA to address the issues stated above by Friday, October 13th.”
Tennis is an extremely grueling sport both physically and mentally, and unlike other professional sports, players are not provided with contracts through teams that guarantee salaries and support systems. They only earn money if they win, and often they’re only in a place to win if they are able to independently invest heavily in their own coaches and trainers. This creates a brutal cycle which often incentivizes players to play through injuries push their bodies past acceptable limits just to attempt to make ends meet.
In August, the ATP announced that beginning next year, it will implement a financial security program called “Baseline” for its players. The innovative program will guarantee a minimum income for players within the top 250 of the rankings, offer injury protection payments to players who play fewer than nine events due to injury, and invest in newcomers who are trying to jumpstart their careers. WTA players would certainly like to see something similar be constructed.
But despite the players’ requests, they did not receive a substantive response to their letter by October 13. In fact, Simon didn’t send them a written response until last week, during the mayhem of the WTA Finals. And that letter? Well, it was filled with typos and empty platitudes, and offered no concrete solutions to the players’ problems.
Simon also turned down interview requests and did not hold a press conference at the WTA Finals. It seems clear, to me, that his leadership has been inadequate throughout these trying times.
The WTA’s financial woes
Now, I don’t want to pretend like Simon’s job has been an easy one. Most of the things the players are requesting require the WTA to spend a lot of money, which the organization is currently not in a position to do. As we talked about a few months ago in Power Plays, the gender wage gap in tennis has grown dramatically over the past decade, as the popularity of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic took the men’s game to new heights, while women’s tennis continued to run into the same systemic sexist barriers that all women’s sports face. Futterman reports that, “the media rights fees for women’s tennis are roughly one-seventh of those for the men’s tour.”
This summer, the WTA announced that it does have a plan in place to give players equal prize money – by 2027 for the bigger, combined tournaments, and 2033 for the smaller tournaments. But this plan requires a lot of patience from the players, and puts true equality far, far into the future.
The truth is, the differential in media rights fees puts the WTA at a big disadvantage, and puts even more pressure on the WTA Finals to be a huge money-maker for the tour. And just a few years ago, it was just that. In 2019, the prize pool for the WTA Finals in Shenzen, China, was $14 million, $5 million more than the prize pool available at the ATP Finals that year. When Ash Barty won the event, she took home a $4.42 million check, the biggest payday in tennis history, men’s or women’s.
The WTA Finals were supposed to be in Shenzen until 2028. But in 2020, the WTA Finals was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, pandemic travel restrictions still prevented the WTA Finals from being held in China, and the WTA didn’t announce a backup site — Guadalajara, Mexico — until September 13. (Sound familiar?) That year, the total prize pool available was only $5 million, down from the $14 million in Shenzen.
Then, in November of 2021, Chinese player Peng Shuai announced on social media that she had been sexually assaulted by Zhang Gaoli, a retired Chinese vice-premiere and prominent member of the Chinese Communist Party. Peng’s post on Weibo was quickly deleted and Peng disappeared from public, sparking great concerns over her safety. The WTA was outraged, and Simon announced that the WTA would suspend all events in China until it could communicate directly and independently with Peng and verify her safety. In 2022, with this ban in place — and, notably, with China’s pandemic travel restriction still active — the WTA once again scrambled to find a host for the WTA Finals, and announced in early September that the event would take place in Fort Worth, Texas, with a prize pool of $5 million.
In April of 2023, the WTA ended its suspension of events in China, despite not being able to talk with Peng and without proper investigation of her sexual assault allegations.
“The WTA got a lot of acclaim for [suspending its relationship with China]. What they did not get is revenue to cover the shortfall,” Sports Illustrated editor and tennis correspondent Jon Wertheim said on the Power Plays Podcast in September. “And the WTA essentially said, we can't abide this. It's all well and good that we are seen as taking this principled stand, but it's blown a hole in our balance sheets. So they essentially just capitulated and walked it back and sort of said, ‘You know, what, we're changing our mind, we are going to go to China.’ What they didn't do is secure this event.”
That’s right: The organizers of the Shenzen tournament were not pleased with the WTA’s actions, and had no interest in continuing the partnership. So the WTA gave up its principals for financial reasons, and didn’t get the financial compensation it expected, leaving the organization scrambling to find a host for its premier event for the third year in a row. Not ideal.
So, the frustrations showed by players in Cancun weren’t just about that event. It’s the culmination of four years of chaos and complications caused by a combination of global events and subpar leadership and communication.
Saudi Arabia is an inevitability
Hanging over everything is the fact that any day now, the organization is expected to announce a partnership with Saudi Arabia. In his most recent column at Sports Illustrated, Wertheim noted that the plan had been to announce that Saudi Arabia was going to host the WTA Finals from 2024-2026 during this year’s WTA Finals, but “the events in the Middle East (and of course, mood in Cancun?) forced a course correction.” But that’s likely a delay just in the announcement, not the decision itself.
This won’t be the first time women’s sports have been hosted in Saudi Arabia — the LPGA and Ladies European Tour have events there — but it would be the most prominent occurrence. And considering how vocan an advocate the WTA has been for human rights over the years, it is troubling to some, myself included, that the WTA would be willing to be a part of sportswashing on this level.
According to Futterman, the WTA provided players talking points in Cancun that addressed the potential move:
In addition, those who are participating in the elite WTA Tour Finals received a series of talking points which players could consider stating should they face questions on those topics. These included the WTA’s position on those meetings with WTA leadership, as well as the war in Israel and Gaza, and the possibility that the WTA Tour Finals or other tournaments might take place in Saudi Arabia next year.
On Saudi Arabia, where players who are gay may feel uncomfortable in a country which criminalizes homosexuality, the WTA advised players to consider saying: “I’m happy to play wherever the WTA Finals is hosted, it’s a prestigious event.”
None of this is comfortable or easy to digest or rationalize. It’s disappointing. It’s also inevitable, and I’m not sure exactly what to do with it. So, I’m just leaving it here for now. We will, certainly, continue to revisit.
A huge test of players solidarity lies ahead
There is so much happening in and around the WTA Tour right now, and I think the thing that worries me the most is that there’s not a strong players’ union.
It was encouraging to see so many of the top 20 players join forces and send a letter to Simon last month, but a few notable names didn’t sign it — Iga Swiatek, Coco Gauff, and Jessica Pegula. Pegula is on the WTA Players’ Council, which does have a seat at some WTA tables, but holds no concrete power. Many of the Top 20 players are a part of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), a group formed by Novak Djokovic a few years ago that strives to serve as a union and give power to players, but the WTA does not give the PTPA a seat at any table, and there are reasons to be skeptical about what the PTPA can do for women’s tennis considering women were initially left out of its formation and Djokovic himself has spoken out against equal pay in the sport in the past. Still, it’s good to have an organization that’s focused solely on the rights of the players, sans tour executives and tournament directors.
Circling around all of this? A potential “merger” between the ATP and WTA Tours — which, according to Wertheim, can’t really be called a “merger” because “the ATP doesn’t want a 50-50 split.”
As we’ve learned throughout women’s sports, especially over the past decade, the biggest leverage point that players have is their solidarity. Throughout all of the upcoming changes, the ones players are pushing for and the ones that are going to be pushed upon them, can they find a unified voice? It’s certainly not going to be an easy task on a tour filled with so many players from all across the globe that operate on a day-in, day-out basis as individuals, rather than teammates, but it might be the only way forward.