Persistent criticism from the players and their collective demands has prompted a positive response from Steve Simon, the CEO of the WTA, who has finally acknowledged that there have been organisational failures at the WTA Finals in Cancun.
First and foremost, it is clear that you are not happy with the decision to be here in Cancun. I understand that and you have been heard. As I have reflected to you, this is not where we expected to be and the decision for this location was based upon a number of complicated factors. It is not a perfect event, we understand the conditions are a challenge and the WTA will of course accept responsibility for that. Steve Simon, WTA CEO and Chairman
Before and during the season-ending championships, many have spoken out about the poor organisation of the premier event in women’s tennis.
Several players, including World No 1 Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, have particularly commented on the below standard condition of the temporary show court, but other issues have also been bubbling away under the surface over the way the WTA has been managing the tour, the future plans for the women’s tour, and the treatment of players over scheduling and travel.
The WTA has not yet publicly addressed the complaints raised, but a leaked letter from Simon to the players has been published on X (formerly Twitter), in which he explains how the WTA is responsible for the failings of arranging a suitable WTA Finals event, and saying the organisation takes full responsibility.
“First and foremost, it is clear that you are not happy with the decision to be here in Cancun. I understand that and you have been heard,” Simon wrote.
“As I have reflected to you, this is not where we expected to be and the decision for this location was based upon a number of complicated factors. It is not a perfect event, we understand the conditions are a challenge and the WTA will of course accept responsibility for that.”
The issues and frustrations around the 2023 WTA Finals began mid-way through the season when the organisation had not announced a venue for the end-of-season event.
Further aggravation grew amongst the players when they only found out in September that the finals would be held in Cancun, and also that it would end just 2 days short of the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Seville, which prompted several from representing their countries in the ITF team competition.
On 5 October, a group of players signed off on a letter sent to the WTA with a list of demands in a ‘revolt’ led by Sabalenka, together with fellow Grand Slam champions Rybakina and Marketa Vondrousova, after a series of discussions culminated in a crunch meeting at the China Open in Beijing.
The Athletic reported that 21 of the best players in the world wrote to Simon outlining their grievances, which included higher pay, a more flexible schedule to ease their physical and mental burden, expanded childcare and representation from the independent Professional Tennis Players Association on the WTA council.
The letter set a deadline date of 13 October for a formal written response from the WTA, but Simon chose a different approach, calling for a direct dialogue and instituting talks with the WTA leadership team and players.
A second meeting took place in Cancun last week, where the world’s Top 8 players in singles and doubles have converged to win the final tournament of the season.
Following the meeting, Simon wrote to the players about some of the issues which had not been covered, while clarifying some of the ones discussed in the main agenda.
The letter was leaked to Sports Illustrated and shared by their correspondent Jon Wertheim on X (formerly Twitter).
While the WTA concedes that this year’s edition of the tour Finals was ‘not a perfect event’, it also has signalled changes to the operation of the circuit.
Simon said the WTA would consider several proposals to reduce the mandatory commitment of top players to participate in certain tournaments at its next board meeting.
The letter also told the players that a wide range of other issues ‘that you identified in your letter’ would be reviewed, including a radical change in the schedule.
He explained that the 2024 calendar no longer carries the overlap of events, and that the main issue centred around a guaranteed annual minimum income is a ‘topic scheduled for review’ based upon the ATP’s own initiative of the same, which will be introduced next year.
Simon added that other priorities for the immediate future include greater consistency in the brand of tennis balls used, and better social media promotion of the tour.
He also confirmed a Player Survey will be introduced at events next year.
“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,” Simon wrote, adding the WTA would continue to listen to the players.
“Players have always been equal decision-makers to ensure a strong direction for women’s tennis,” the WTA told Reuters later.
“The strength of the voices of our players – including through WTA player representatives on the Board and the WTA Players’ Council, who the athletes on the Tour elect – have helped the WTA deliver an increase of $400 million in compensation to players over the next 10 years.”
Apart from the courts not being ready in time, to the players feeling ‘disrespected by the WTA’, Mother Nature also has been causing havoc with the playing schedule at the WTA Finals in Mexico, which is of no surprise since the event is taking place at the end of the rainy hurricane season, while the location itself is close to the beach and susceptible to changeable winds.
Also, the season-ending tournament at Estadio Paradisus didn’t have the best of build-ups in marketing terms resulting in sparse crowds during the round robin matches.
When the event got underway, the likes of Sabalenka, Swiatek and Vondrousova all complained about the state of the court with World No 1 stating ‘as a player, I feel really disrespected by the WTA’ over the conditions in Cancun.
“I have to say, though, that I am very disappointed with the WTA and the experience so far at the WTA Finals. As a player, I feel really disrespected by the WTA. I think most of us do,” Sabalenka wrote on social media.
“This is not the level of organisation we expect for the Finals. To be honest, I don’t feel safe moving on this court a lot of the time, the bounce is not consistent at all, and we weren’t able to practise 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.”
With the late decision on the host city for the WTA Finals, Swiatek observed: “Obviously, they decided late that we were going to play here. It’s clear that marketing should be better. It’s a shame we don’t have a full stadium and we don’t really feel, like, we’re at the tennis party all week. But it’s like that.”
Clearly the adverse publicity generated by the players at their press conferences hasn’t helped either.
Swiatek also stated that she was ‘not comfortable’ on the court, while Vondrousova claimed the WTA is ‘not interested in our opinions’.
“[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 Wimbledon champion wrote.
Now that so much of the concerns have been aired in public, the WTA and its players can begin to find some common ground for the future success of the women’s tour.