The WTA announced on Thursday that it has selected Cancún, Mexico, as the venue for its prestigious year-end finale, ending speculation that the event would be held in Saudi Arabia, but prompting criticism over the lack of consideration for players competing in the Billie Jean King Cup just a couple of days later in Europe.
I’m glad they’re not going to Saudi Arabia right now because Saudi Arabia for women is really difficult. We probably need some guarantees of change, or we shouldn’t go. I would personally like to help people there, particularly women. Billie Jean King
The top 8 women’s players in singles and doubles teams in the Race to the WTA Finals will face off against each other from 29 October to 5 November in Mexico, with the BJK Cup Finals taking place from 7-12 November on indoor hard courts at Estadio de La Cartuja in Seville, Spain.
This is yet another example of the lack of joined-up thinking in tennis, especially after the feed-back from the successful but ill-timed WTA Finals held in Guadalajara, Mexico, two years ago that kept the likes of Iga Swiatek, the World No 1, from representing Poland in Glasgow, under different conditions and on a separate continent two days later.
Swiatek cited the scheduling of the two events so close together and the change of surface as being harmful to players’ health, and called on the governing bodies of tennis to work on a better schedule.
As last year, the powers that be at the WTA released the venue with only around 50 days to go, which severely impacted the Finals held at Fort Worth in Texas in terms of attendance in 2022.
Over weeks of speculation, the two front-runners appeared to be Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, and Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, and the announcement of Cancún has taken many by surprise because of the travel implications.
Many have criticised the WTA for not thinking ahead enough, and calling for the Finals to be scheduled in a European country from where travel would be much shorter and less complicated.
Stuart Fraser form The Times pointed out that there are no direct flights between Cancun and Seville, which underlines the unsuitability of the venue.
“Just checked there… no direct flights from Cancun to Seville available for those who wish to play both the WTA Finals and Billie Jean King Cup Finals,” Fraser posted on social media. “Private jets obviously an option but once again the WTA has shown a dreadful lack of consideration for what follows.”
So far, 3 players have qualified for the 2023 WTA Finals – Aryna Sabalenka, Swiatek, and Elena Rybakina, while Jessica Pegula & Coco Gauff have qualified as a doubles team.
“I would like to extend my appreciation to the Cancún tournament organizers GS Sports Management for their commitment in hosting the WTA Finals this year,” said Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO, in a statement. “This edition of the WTA Finals will provide a fantastic experience for players and fans alike, offer a fitting finale for the 2023 Hologic WTA Tour and enable us to continue building a strong future for women’s tennis.”
In its press release, the WTA said it had weighed a number of competitive bids through a thorough process, in close consultation with the WTA Players’ Council, but gave few details, saying instead that these would be released later.
Venue and partnership choices are based on multiple factors, including player logistics, travel accessibility, venue capacity, and a commitment to supporting and showcasing women’s tennis.
GS Sports Management has a proven track record in professional tennis, serving as the promoters of a span of WTA tournaments, including the highly successful 2021 WTA Finals in Guadalajara as well as the WTA 1000 Guadalajara, WTA 250 Merida and WTA 125 San Luis.
The announcement left Czech organisers frustrated as their stars will not now have a home WTA Finals.
“They didn’t even let us know that it would be played in Cancún,” complained businessman Tomas Petera after losing the bid.
Czechia had hoped to host the Finals in Ostrava and, potentially, in Prague in the coming seasons, which would have allowed for the likely presence of Marketa Vondrousova and Karolina Muchova, who are ranked 6th and 7th in the Race, respectively, while Petra Kvitova is in the 10th spot.
Swiatek’s participation in Ostrava also would have given the event a boost, considering its proximity to Poland, her homeland.
“Our project promised to have sold out, or at least quite full theatres in Ostrava and Prague,” Petera continued. “It seems that with the participation of four Czechs, the Poles would feel for Iga Swiatek.
“I gathered sponsors and presented a very attractive budget. They got two options.
“According to one, it was only this year’s edition in Ostrava. And according to the second, the tournament would move from Ostrava to Prague for the next four seasons, where we offered up to $15 million in rewards for female players, $6 million as a WTA fee and covering all costs.”
Petera was asked if the WTA had viewed the bid as a serious contender.
“The other day, Steve Simon asked us for some clarification and reassurance,” the businessman said. “We convinced the government to guarantee the launch of Belarusians and Russians under the given conditions that apply throughout Europe.
“And then I just got an indirect message. Simon himself did not speak at all. According to my information, the WTA is going to award the hosting for the next years to Riyadh.
“At the same time, the regime in Saudi Arabia is not very compatible with the principles of the WTA. The rights of women and minorities are not respected there. And the idea that Martina Navratilova would present the award in Riyadh? It’s a mockery!’
After the men’s ATP Tour announced last month that the Next Gen Finals will be held in Jeddah from 2023 to 2027, social media has been awash with rumours that the WTA Finals would also be heading to Saudi Arabia, and concerns were voiced over the country’s record on women’s and LGBTQ rights, which has led to accusations of ‘sports-washing’.
While Simon has said that the Gulf state presents ‘big issues’ as a host for women’s tour events, the WTA declined to deny the recent rumours, saying a decision had yet to be made.
World No 5 Ons Jabeur, who is from Tunisia and is the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final, has backed the idea as a way of bringing more Arab women into tennis, but Chris Evert, now a ESPN analyst, told reporters last month that she would prefer the WTA not to go to the Middle Eastern country.
In 2021 the WTA Finals were held in Guadalajara instead of Shenzhen, China, after the WTA removed the Asian swing of tournaments from its calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The finale was set to return to Shenzhen from 2022 until 2030, but the WTA then suspended operations in China due to concerns over former doubles World No 1 Peng Shuai, with the event being moved to Fort Worth, United States, as a stop-gap measure.
When the WTA resumed its operations in China earlier this year, it was assumed the Finals would return to Shenzen, but this has not been the case.
Meanwhile, equality advocate Billie Jean King approved of the decision.
“I’m glad they’re not going to Saudi Arabia right now because Saudi Arabia for women is really difficult,” King said during the Cadillac’s Champions of Equality panel meeting, with Christiane Amanpour, Venus Williams and Telva McGruder at the US Open on Thursday.
King, 79, said the young people of Saudi Arabia are fighting for change, but she believes female athletes shouldn’t play there unless there are improvements to women’s rights.
“We probably need some guarantees of change, or we shouldn’t go,” King said. “I would personally like to help people there, particularly women.”
King, who fought and won for equal prize money at the US Open 50 years ago, acknowledged that women can finally drive now, but noted there needs to be greater changes for them and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“I think there’s a yearning in the hearts and minds of the people for change, and, if we could be an influencer in that to be more positive, then, I think, we should go for it,” she said, “but if we cannot, then, I think, we have to sit down and seriously talk about it.”
King, who presented the first official US Open Billie Jean King Champion of Equality Award to Serena Williams this week, admitted she didn’t know if it was possible to create positive change, but encouraged people to engage in discussions.
The WTA’s announcement on Thursday that the 2023 Finals will take place in Cancún for one year only, ended the speculation over Saudi Arabia, at least for the time being.
The fall-out for the BJK Cup Finals, though, is yet to be determined.
Earlier this week the ITF announced the schedule of play for the 2023 Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals, with tickets going on sale from Thursday.
Twelve teams will compete for the coveted trophy and to don the iconic Billie Blue Jackets, designed by official Billie Jean King Cup apparel partner Tory Burch.
It is a special year for the competition, which celebrates its 60th anniversary, having been played for the first time at the Queen’s Club in London in June 1963.
2022 runners-up Australia will contest the first tie of this year’s Finals on Tuesday 7 November, with Alicia Molik’s team up against Finals debutants Slovenia, while 2023 winners Switzerland begin their campaign later in the opening day, taking on 11-time world champions Czechia.