FORT WORTH — The WTA Finals, the elite season-ending women’s tennis tournament, was supposed to take place in Shenzhen, China, for 10 years and fill the WTA’s coffers.
It has not worked out as planned.
China’s “zero-Covid” policy continues to keep nearly all international sports events out of the country. Even if China did reopen, women’s tennis has suspended all tournaments in the country, once one of its key markets, because of unresolved concerns about the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who last year accused a former top Chinese government official of sexual assault.
“We’ve made a strong stand, and we stand behind that stance, and we’re not going to compromise our principles,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s chairman and chief executive, said in an interview. “Clearly when we did it, we understood eyes wide open what it could mean.”
Last year’s WTA Finals were moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. This year’s event, which was scheduled to finish on Monday night, was staged on short notice at the 14,000-seat Dickies Arena in Fort Worth with attendance that built from woefully low early in the tournament to modest, but enthusiastic, crowds of close to 6,000 in some of the later sessions.
Some coaches and players, including No. 1 Iga Swiatek, said they understood the challenges but were disappointed with the turnout. Swiatek, who was defeated by the seventh-ranked Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals on Sunday, also cited the big gap in prize money between the WTA Finals, which offers $5 million, and the equivalent men’s tournament, the ATP Finals, which starts Sunday in Turin, Italy, and will offer an event record $14.75 million.
The 2019 WTA Finals, the only time the tournament was held so far in Shenzhen, offered $14 million in prize money, which was $5 million more than the 2019 men’s event in London.
“It’s just pretty sad the WTA kind of got hit by Covid and by not having the place to play before and organize everything properly,” Swiatek said. “But on the other hand, you have an example in the ATP that they were able to do everything and even increase the prize money. So, hopefully for next time, we’re going to be kind of more prepared.”
But the ATP did not bank as heavily on China, and at this stage it seems unlikely the WTA will soon return to the country where it staged nine tournaments in 2019. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, doubled down on the “zero Covid” policy last month, and Simon reaffirmed in Fort Worth that the tour’s suspension of tournaments in China will not be lifted until there is a credible and transparent inquiry into Peng’s allegations, which were made in November 2021 on her Chinese social media account, as well as a chance for tour officials to communicate with her independently.
“We’re still in the same place,” Simon said. “If they come forward with something else we should look at, of course we are open to it. But we haven’t seen it so far. I’m hopeful we do find a resolution. That’s the goal, to find the right resolution. What’s the truth? Then we can move forward.”
Peng, a 2014 U.S. Open singles semifinalist who made public appearances during the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, has since recanted the assault allegations, citing a misunderstanding. Now 36, she announced her retirement earlier this year. But the WTA remains unconvinced that she is able to act and speak freely and it has still not been able to make direct contact with her.
“We know she’s safe, and she’s in Beijing and doing OK,” Simon said. “We haven’t spoken directly with her.”
If the stalemate continues, Simon said the tour would seek a longer-term solution for the Finals, which have traditionally been a key revenue stream. Instead, the WTA was obliged to provide the $5 million in prize money in Guadalajara and again in Fort Worth: quite a downturn from Shenzhen providing it all in 2019.
Simon said there was more interest from prospective cities in staging the event on a multiyear basis because of the economics. He said securing sites for a single year has been a challenge despite going to market in March this year. Though Fort Worth and its modern arena were welcome, announcing it so late in the season made it difficult to promote (as did football season in Texas).
“We’re not going to continue to do these one-year decisions,” Simon said. “It’s not sustainable. If it looks like we can’t go back to China or aren’t ready to go back, then I do think we will carve out a multiyear situation, because we need to for the business.”
The WTA signed a new title sponsor, Hologic, in 2022 that provided crucial funding, some of it up front, but the tour continues to seek other investors and is now in exclusive and advanced negotiations with CVC Capital Partners, a private equity firm based in Luxembourg that could take a stake in the tour and help address the prize-money gap that Swiatek complained about.
“It’s just a very complex business decision and business move we need to work through,” said Simon, emphasizing that the deal, if concluded, would not further complicate the governance of a sport already awash in governing bodies.
Though the four Grand Slam tournaments and several other top-tier combined events, like the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., offer equal prize money to men and women, the gap has widened between many stand-alone men’s and women’s events.
“When are people going to start stepping up and actually following through?” Simon said. “They are saying one thing about support of women athletes and sports and leagues and the need to invest, but when it comes to actually stepping up and treating it the same way and investing that isn’t happening.”
Though a merger with the ATP, an idea floated most recently during tennis’ hiatus in 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, has not materialized, there is increased cooperation, symbolized by the United Cup, the new men’s and women’s team event in Australia in January that was formerly the men’s only ATP Cup and will lead in to the Australian Open.
But major equity issues remain, including the persistent dearth of women in coaching. The WTA said that there are only six working full time with the top 100 WTA singles players and top 50 doubles players. The issue is complex. Women have traditionally been more resistant to the year-round travel, and male coaches often still serve as hitting partners for female pros, thus fulfilling two roles and saving money. But Simon sees bias as well, and the WTA launched an initiative last week to increase those paltry numbers, offering an online certification course and opportunities to shadow coaches and players during tournaments.
“I think you’re dealing again with one of those stigmas,” Simon said. “Hopefully we can recruit and get more women after they finish playing or they’ve gone through the coaching ranks that they will continue to rise and become a part of the tour.”
Simon said the WTA will also soon appoint a new director of safeguarding: a topic at the forefront of women’s sports with last month’s investigative report on the National Women’s Soccer League revealing widespread sexual misconduct and coercion by coaches.
In tennis, Pierre Bouteyre, a former coach of the leading French tennis player Fiona Ferro, was charged earlier this year in France with rape and sexual assault against Ferro when she was a teenager.
“It’s a critical issue to the tour, and it goes way beyond sport,” Simon said of protecting players from abuse.
The WTA has existing programs focused on player education and background checks and credentialing for coaches. But Simon and other tennis leaders believe the sport should do much more collectively. He said the International Tennis Integrity Agency, the independent body that investigates doping and corruption in the game, could add safeguarding to its portfolio.
“It’s exploratory for now but serious,” said Simon, who said involving the agency would allow coordinated oversight across the “entire sport” from the junior level to the pro tour.
“That’s not the case now, everyone is doing their own thing to the best they can,” Simon said. “One of the education pieces is we need to help ourselves. If you see it, you need to report it, so we can react to it versus just dealing with rumors, because it’s such a sensitive topic, and it’s hard to get people to come forward.”