The Women’s Tennis Association moved its end-of-the-year showcase event from Istanbul to Singapore this year. The time difference put a lot of matches on American television in the middle of the night. The sport is bigger than one country or continent, and Li Na — who retired before the 2014 WTA Finals began — had a lot to do with opening up the Asian market to tennis. Staging the event in Singapore represents an attempt — and a logical one at that — to expose new fans to the WTA’s product.
American tennis fans might not have been able to see many of the past week’s matches, but paying customers in Singapore were given more than their money’s worth by most of what they saw.
The WTA put on a grand show in its season-ending centerpiece. The quality of tennis wasn’t always heaven-kissed, but it attained considerable heights often enough for even a casual sports fan to say, “Hey, this is pretty darn good.” Beyond the level of tennis, however, the fully week in Singapore offered outrageously entertaining theater and off-the-charts intrigue. The only true downers from the week were Eugenie Bouchard’s three matches and Petra Kvitova’s two losing matches. The Wimbledon finalists lacked stamina (Bouchard) and crispness (both players), which is entirely understandable after a long year of constant competition. Other than those two players — and Bouchard is almost certain to return to this event in the future with a much better understanding of how to comport herself — there were few sour notes struck in Singapore. Nearly every other match left a vivid imprint on the mind’s eye… if, of course, you were able to watch the match in the middle of the night.
THE 2014 WTA FINALS: A STORY OF CONTRADICTIONS AND COMPLEXITIES
For both the diehard tennis fan and the casual sports fan who only thinks of tennis a few times each year, the unique source of drama at the 2014 WTA Finals was the round-robin format. The eight singles players who contested this championship were slotted into two groups, with the second-place player in each group getting a berth in the semifinals. This structure lends itself to inconsistencies and oddities… and to the potential for gaming the system, which unsurprisingly came up as a topic in the last of 12 round-robin preliminary round matches.
In one group (the White Group), Caroline Wozniacki won all three round-robin matches while the other three players in her group — Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Petra Kvitova — all won only once. Someone had to emerge from that three-pack, and Radwanska became that player.
Under the format of the tournament, if the match records are the same, the next tiebreaker is sets won and lost. Radwanska trailed Sharapova 5-1 in the second set of the final round-robin match for each player. Sharapova had already won the first set; had she closed down the match in straight sets, she would have advanced to the semifinals. Yet, Radwanska fought off a match-point deficit to improbably take that second set. Sharapova won the match in three sets, but her semifinal aspirations were put to rest. The reality of seeing a winning player lose on a larger scale was odd and disjointing, but such is the reality of round-robin tennis with a flat emphasis on finishing second in the group. Radwanska went 1-2 in round-robin play, but she made the semis.
In the Red Group (insert Game of Thrones joke here), Bouchard was the one who was relentlessly attacked, absorbing three decisive losses. In exchange for Bouchard’s agonies, however, the other three players in the group compiled 2-1 match records. Simona Halep clinched a semifinal berth before taking the court in her final round-robin match against Ana Ivanovic, while Ivanovic took the court against Halep knowing that she had to win her match in straight sets to advance to the semifinals and displace Serena Williams, who had already secured her 2-1 round-robin record and was going to find herself involved in a sets-won tiebreaker in the event of an Ivanovic victory. This set up one of the two foremost dramas of the tournament.
Before the Halep-Ivanovic match, discussion raged through the global tennis community: Should Halep tank the match to get Serena out of the tournament and have a better chance of winning? The round-robin format made such a move possible and worthy of consideration. Yes, each round-robin match carries with it a separate stand-alone bundle of both prize money and rankings points; winning a match is not without its own rewards. Yet, Halep had already won two matches, stacking up both money and points. In search of a supremely fat winner’s paycheck and the prestige of winning the season-ending championship, Halep would have been entirely logical and reasonable in getting Serena out of the way, losing in the short run to set up a bigger goal.
As it turned out, Halep decided to play the match straight. She led, 5-2, in the first set. She blew the lead but then gained a set point at 6-5 in a tiebreaker. Ultimately, however, Ivanovic came up with high-pressure shots to steal a nerve-addled set, 8-6 in the breaker. Halep, with a semifinal match already scheduled the next day, could have folded the tent and shortened her workday at the office. However, she played on and won the second set. Ivanovic rebounded to win the third set, but as was the case in the Sharapova-Radwanska match, the winner of a three-set battle earned a plane ticket home instead of an extended stay in Singapore. What made Ivanovic’s failure to make the semifinals all the more difficult to accept was that the Serbian won two matches and fell short of the semis, while Radwanska — in a group that played out differently — won only one match yet received a ticket to the final four. The “four-mat” in this tournament made it so.
A brief word should be devoted to the formatting and scheduling of this event, which is similar to (though not exactly like) the ATP World Tour Finals, which will begin on Nov. 9 in London. As you’ve just seen, one player (Radwanska) was able to make the semifinals with fewer match wins than another player in a different group (Ivanovic). It’s worth it for both the WTA and ATP to consider the following tweak in future season-ending championship tournaments governed by round-robin play: If Player A from Group 1 is second in the group (a position which currently merits a semifinal berth) but has only one round-robin match victory, that player should not receive automatic advancement to the semifinals if Player B from Group 2 finishes third in the group (a position which currently means elimination from semifinal contention) but with two round-robin wins, more than Player A.
What both tours could do in these round-robin showcases is to have these two players play one set an hour and a half before the scheduled semifinal. The winner of the set would advance to the semis, pocketing extra money and rankings points. The loser of the tiebreaker set would still be given a share of money and points in recognition of the unique circumstances. The use of a tiebreaker set would also put the winner of that tiebreaker at a disadvantage going into the semifinals. This would seem to be a “deserved disadvantage,” since one player finished outside the top two in his/her group, while the other one failed to have a winning record in round-robin match play.
The other note to make about these WTA Finals in particular is that the schedule jumped around as the week continued. The first two nights featured only the first two matches from the separate groups, White and Red. Subsequent nights involved two matches from one group and then a single match from the other group. In the Red Group, Serena dismissed Bouchard on Thursday night in the final round-robin clash for both players. In a more normal and rational setup, Halep and Ivanovic would have had to play their final round-robin match just before or after Serena and Bouchard. However, the schedule put Halep-Ivanovic a day after Serena-Bouchard, giving Halep a lot of extra time to think about the Shakespearian tennis query, “To tank or not to tank?” The scheduling in Singapore did not encourage gamesmanship-free approaches from players. It’s to Halep’s credit that with a full day to think about her approach, she still played to win against Ivanovic. A revision of the schedule out to be thought about for 2015.
About the tanking issue, while we’re on it:
For a veteran player (in her late 20s or early 30s) who has never won the WTA Finals or never finished as the year-end No. 1 player in the world, tanking a round-robin match to attain one or more elusive long-term goals makes sense. You’ve put in your time, laboring in the salt mines, and you want to get something that has eluded you. That’s something any other player in the locker room can and should respect.
When you’re a younger player, though, you’re learning how to compete. You’re also in a position where the more you can play the best in the world, the more you can grow as a tennis professional. Simona Halep might have practiced good politics by winning Serena Williams’s respect, but not tanking versus Ivanovic was smart simply because it reinforced Halep’s competitive instincts, the same instincts that catapulted her into the top five this season as one of the breakout players on the WTA Tour. Halep and other younger players are in a position to learn, not to manipulate. The savvy and selective tanking of matches to alter tournament brackets is something that can come several years down the line.
The final batch of large-scale complexities to be found in Singapore emerged from the thrilling semifinal between Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. The best of friends delivered a memorable final set that represented the best tennis of the entire week.
Once in a while, the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player comes from the losing team, as was first the case in Super Bowl V from 1971, when Chuck Howley of the losing Dallas Cowboys got the award. He would have traded that distinction for the trophy the Baltimore Colts were able to lift in Miami.
In this tournament, Caroline Wozniacki was the best player. Yet, she didn’t win the event: Williams nudged her, 8-6, in a final-set tiebreaker to claim a riveting semifinal. Serena needed a fortunate bounce off the top of the tape at 1-4 in that same final-set tiebreaker to change the trajectory of those final, fateful points. To her credit, Serena made great use of that bit of luck. Nevertheless, Wozniacki — playing the best tennis of her career — stood just a few points from a 4-0 record at this tournament, while Serena endured a drubbing from Halep in the round-robin stages. If this was an Olympic tournament judged solely on technique and form, Wozniacki would have won the gold medal, while Serena and Halep would have shared silver medals. Wozniacki didn’t even play in the final, but her more resolute hitting — in support of court coverage and defensive instincts that have constantly remained her core strengths — has clearly lifted her to a higher place in women’s tennis. The start of her 2015 season offers the promise of riches that could not have been reasonably conceived of when her 2014 season began. Wozniacki was the best player at this tournament, even though she won’t have the trophy or the prize money to show for it.
Having discussed Wozniacki, there’s only one player left to salute in Singapore, and it’s Serena. Very simply, Serena won her third straight year-end championship, yet another reflection of the extent to which the younger Williams sister has flourished in what are generally considered “old-person” years in tennis. Compared to 2012 and 2013, not to mention the standards that do and should exist for an 18-time major champion, 2014 was undeniably a “down year” for Serena.
With a U.S. Open title and now another WTA Finals crown, Serena shows how great a “down” year can still be, how great a player of her stature can still become over the course of a full tennis season. The first several months of 2014 were spent discussing decay and decline, filled with references to hitting a wall and succumbing to mental exhaustion.
At the end of 2014, we’re left to merely say — as we’ve said so many times before — that Serena Williams is No. 1 in women’s tennis, commanding the stage not just with her presence, but with a game that has not eroded to any meaningful extent whatsoever.
That’s a wrap for the WTA Finals and the year in women’s tennis. Next Monday, we’ll review the Paris-Bercy ATP Masters 1000 tournament, the last stop on the road to the ATP World Tour Finals in London.