While it was hoped the hurdles of late construction and poor practice facilities had been overcome in Cancun, Mexico, when the WTA Finals finally got under way this week, with the top 8 players in the Race to the Finals competing for honours, the grumblings over conditions and rumblings of a rebellion are still making the headlines, confirming that all is not well on the women’s tour.
We are not happy with some things. I feel like everything is just based on wanting to have more and more, but not really taking care of our well-being and health. There are some things that the WTA could change for us without any impact on the tournaments and the things that they already agreed with the tournaments. Iga Świątek
“We are not happy with some things,” Iga Swiatek, the World No 2 said after US Open champion Coco Gauff 6-0 7-5 in round-robin action on Wednesday.
Some players recently outlined various concerns in a letter to WTA CEO Steve Simon and during two meetings with tour leadership.
Among the topics were a guaranteed income and coverage for maternity leave and injury absences, along with an objection to a planned change in rules governing mandatory tournament appearances.
“I feel like everything is just based on wanting to have more and more, but not really taking care of our well-being and health,” said the 22-year old Pole. “There are some things that the WTA could change for us without any impact on the tournaments and the things that they already agreed with the tournaments.”
In a letter Simon wrote back to the players to address some of their concerns, obtained by The Associated Press, he said working groups with representatives from the WTA Board, Tournament Council and Players’ Council ‘are in the process of reviewing scheduling and tournament standards’ and recommendations are expected to be made later this month.
Among these topics, Simon wrote, is late-night matches, which are a growing source of frustration for players, while other areas being looked at include inconsistency in tennis balls over the course of a season, anti-doping and integrity, and marketing and social media efforts.
Simon wrote that ‘a great deal is being done and … there is a great deal of alignment in the areas you have raised and what is being worked on’, and promised to provide an update the week of 13 November.
“I really feel like we — me and the other players, like, [Ons Jabeur], Coco … and also some players that didn’t qualify for the finals — we’re really, really united, and we think the same way,” Swiatek said. “So most of us, even the young ones, the older ones, we all know that this is kind of not good that we’re going to have more mandatory tournaments. And so we want to really, really have an impact.”
Asked about the lack of spectators at her match against Gauff, Swiatek blamed the late decision to hold the tour’s season-ending championship in Cancun, adding that ‘the marketing should be better’.
According to some reports, though, many sections in the stands have already sold out, which is good news for both the WTA and local organisers after the disappointing Fort Worth attendance in 2022, despite the late decision to move the season-ending championships to Mexico.
The WTA decided to change the location to Fort Worth, Texas, just a few months before the event, and it resulted in low attendance due to difficulties in finding a suitable venue and poor marketing.
This year, uncertainty persisted until Cancun was announced as the new host just 40 days ahead the event.
It was the 3rd year in a row that the host of the prestigious tournament was only decided less than two months prior to the start of the event.
Some light has been shed on the choice of venue since, with the roof of the initial Finals venue in Cancun too low for use, prompting the need to build a new temporary stadium at the last minute, which was finished just 2 days before the start of the tournament.
Last-minute construction delays and infrastructure issues created challenges for the organisation, who nevertheless hope that Mexican fans will turn out in large numbers to watch the best compete this week.
Anton Dubrov, World No 1 Aryna Sabalenka’s coach, said on Monday that the court feels as though there are holes beneath the surface in some spots, having been laid on a golf course.
The inconsistent surface has left some players with little idea of how the ball will bounce and unable to move freely or without fear of injury.
The court is also a short walk from both the sea and a bay, making it prone to high winds in the final weeks of hurricane season in the Caribbean.
These court issues refuse to go away and players continue to criticise the footing and erratic bounce, which, they say, makes them feel unsafe on the surface, as well as the lack of time they have had to practice on it ahead of the start of the competition.
“Honestly, it’s another level of disrespect from the WTA for the players,” Sabalenka told reporters on Sunday. “Sometimes, I don’t even feel safe to move on this court. That’s not the level I expect from the WTA Finals.
“Thank you for this challenge I’m facing right now, of having to learn to adapt quickly to the conditions. Thank you for that. But this is not something I expect from such a high level tournament.”
After losing to Jessica Pegula on opening day, Elena Rybakina said: “As I said, I’m not really happy with the conditions and the set up of the tournament.
“About the court, I don’t really want to talk. But of course, it’s not good. For sure not for the final 8. Because everything was late, and there was no time to fix anything. You can see by the rallies and the shanks we both hit.
“I think the quality of the match wasn’t the greatest. But as I said, I tried to do my best.”
The WTA robustly defended its decisions in a statement on Monday: “We’re pleased to host the WTA Finals in Cancun for the first time and worked hard to construct a stadium where the world’s top eight women’s tennis players and doubles teams compete head-to-head.
“The team has worked diligently on an expedited timeline amid weather challenges to ensure the stadium and court meet our strict performance standards.”
Following her 7-6(3) 6-0 defeat at the hands of Swiatek on Tuesday, Marketa Vondrousova wrote on Instagram: “My first WTA Finals is not at all what I imagined. We work hard all year to get to the finals and in the end it’s just a disappointment.
“[The] stadium is not at all ready for the matches and to me it feels like the people from WTA are absolutely not interested in how we who are supposed to play on that court feel. We do not feel that anyone listens to us and is interested in our opinions. Very sad.”
The WTA Finals is offering $9 million in prize money to the players, with $198,000 for their participation and the same amount for each win in the round-robin stage.
Those advancing to the semi-finals will receive an additional $54,000, while the winners in the Last 4 will earn an additional $756,000.
The eventual champion will receive $1,476,000, which is the highest prize money purse on offer this season on the WTA Tour.
Many are calling for a world-class permanent venue for the year-ending championships, to give the top players the showcase they deserve.
There are also reports that there had been a two-horse race in the bidding process for this year’s Finals, involving Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic, but a late and unexpected change was announced by the WTA with the Mexican coastal city of Cacun as the new host.
Former member of the WTA Players’ Council, Magda Linette, lifted the lid on the surprise choice of handing the rights to Cancun, where the best 8 players in the world were obliged to practice on hotel courts for starters, and only got a day of practice to test the newly minted main court.
Linette, who served on the Players’ Council until the recent elections, has since stated that the players were concerned about the tournament going to Ostrava.
The risk that the Czech Republic would not permit players from all nationalities to enter the country, produced doubts, and especially the prospect of Russian and Belarusians being unable to play worried the Council, particularly with the new World No 1, Sabalenka, being a Belarusian, who would be excluded.
It also emerged, according to Linette, that players had been aware of Cancun as being a potential tournament host and elected to make this their choice, with the large prize money pool in Mexico also a factor.
“The disadvantage in Ostrava was that we did not have a hundred percent guarantee all the girls would be able to play,” she said. “If even one was not allowed in the country, the tournament would not take place, which would result in a huge penalty. About the size of this entire investment.”
Behind closed doors, the WTA reportedly is facing a rebellion from many of its top players over pay and conditions, which has been brewing for some time and seems to be culminating in Cancun after nearly a month of unsatisfying contact with leaders of the Tour.
Sabalenka said on Sunday that she felt ‘disrespected by the WTA’ following weeks of angry communications that began to boil over in text messages and a series of player meetings at the China Open during the early days of October.
The discussions in China culminated with a 3-page letter sent on 5 October, signed by Sabalenka and 20 other leading players, including Rybakina and 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 organisation, the nascent Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), which Novak Djokovic co-founded in 2020.
The letter apparently 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’.
Paula Wolecka, a spokesperson for Swiatek confirmed on Monday that the Pole had sent her own letter to the WTA leadership, and was part of a ‘united front here in wishing for a real change’.
The players are still waiting for that written response, and, instead, received the offer of two meetings with Steve Simon, Chief Executive of the WTA Tour, and other leaders of the organisation on 16 October, with the second held last Thursday in Cancun.
In addition, those who are participating in the elite WTA Tour Finals last week received a series of talking points which players could consider using should they have faced questions on those topics.
These included the WTA’s position on those meetings with the WTA leadership, as well as responses relating to 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 criminalises homosexuality, the WTA advised players to consider saying: “I’m happy to play wherever the WTA Finals is hosted, it’s a prestigious event.”
On the meetings with WTA leaders, players were advised to express pride in the WTA’s efforts to increase player compensation and stating that they, too, look forward to continued conversations to ‘keep building a strong future for women’s tennis’.
It seems players left dissatisfied with the WTA’s response to their requests, and two unnamed top players were so frustrated that they left last Thursday’s meeting before its conclusion.
Part of that frustration involved the WTA’s refusal to allow Ahmad Nassar, the Executive Director of the PTPA, to attend either meeting.
Nasser sent a letter to Simon a week ago, noting that he had been told the WTA leaders wanted to speak directly with its athletes, without their agents, coaches or other outside influences, and reiterating the players’ requests for a written response to their initial letter.
According to several reports, the latest requests in the October 5 letter included guaranteed pay of $500,000 for players in the Top 100, $200,000 for players ranked 101-175, and $100,000 for players ranked 175-250.
Interestingly, the men’s tour, the ATP, recently announced a plan to provide a similar guaranteed pay scale.
The women players also want compensation if they are injured and cannot play, or if they take a break from the tour to have a child, and requested the right to audit the financial records of their tournaments.
The heightened tensions over the past month follows a series of incidents in which many have become frustrated about how officials have treated the players, including not being allowed to address the crowd during the awards ceremony in Madrid, and the unfavourably late start times, as well as the infamously smaller birthday cake presented to Sabalenka compared to that received by Carlos Alcaraz.
In June, the WTA announced an agreement with tournament directors that will guarantee equal prize money for men and women, but not until 2027 for the largest tournaments, and 2033 for the smaller ones.
Several top players said they did not understand why they had to wait, especially for tournaments that include women who do the same ‘work’ as the men, but for less prize money.
WTA officials responded by saying that tournament organisers needed time for a series of new business initiatives to produce enough revenue to support the higher prize money.
Kazakhstan Tennis Federation Vice President Yuri Polsky recently spoke about the financial status of the WTA in an interview with the Russian tabloid Championat, claiming the organisation risks bankruptcy by 2026 because of mismanagement and the absence of the rich Asian tournaments.
He recommended remodelling the top management of the sport with a commercial and logistical merger between the WTA with the ATP.
“For the WTA it is a question of survival, while for the ATP it is a question of reputation,” Polsky said.
Simon’s response was swift: “The Billie Jean King Cup and the WTA, having equal prize money, do not generate the same income. That is, unfortunately, this is a reality – people go to men’s tennis more.”
He also expressed confidence in the WTA’s financial health, and about growing women’s tennis in the coming years, and brushed aside suggestions of an impending merger between the WTA and the ATP.
Again he made reference to the move by the WTA to increase the compensation for players by $400 million over the next decade, which will help secure the WTA as one of the leading women’s sporting organisations in the world.
At 50 years old, the WTA needs to get its players back on board before more long-term visions can be fulfilled, including any merger between the men and the women in tennis.
“I feel like we can use our voice now,” Wimbledon champion Vondrousova said on Wednesday, “Just to show people what’s happening here.”