Is the WTA Asian Swing a Disappointment?

The development of the WTA Asian swing is one of the key contributions that Stacey Allaster, the former CEO of the WTA, is credited with. However, the rise of Chinese star Li Na was certainly also a catalyst. The Asian swing occurs at the tail end of a long tennis season, sandwiched between the US Open and the season-ending WTA finals in Singapore.

The Toray Pan Pacific Open played in Tokyo (Sept. 21-27,2015) is a WTA Premier level tournament. This tournament saw only one retirement due to injury; Mirjana Lucic-Baroni retired in the first round after losing the first set to Dominika Cibulkova. The final was a straight sets win for Angnieszka Radwanska, the #7 seed, over Belinda Bencic the #8 seed. The tournament featured a number of top twenty players and there were certainly some exciting matches. This is a new location for this tournament, so perhaps that explains the lack of fans in the stands. Even in the later rounds, the stands appeared empty, a stark contrast for the players after the commotion of the full stands at the US Open.

The next tournament on the schedule at the WTA Premier level, was the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open (Sept. 27-Oct. 3,2015). This event was held in a beautiful new stadium with a retractable roof and seats for 10,000 fans, but even as the tournament entered the final days, the stands were sparsely populated. Before the first ball had been played Canadian Eugenie Bouchard had to withdraw as she was still suffering from the effects of the concussion suffered at the US Open. The Lucky Loser who took her place in the draw was Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia. Tomljanovic was immediately defeated by the finalist from the week before Belinda Bencic. However, in the next round, Bencic retired with a left thigh injury after losing the first set to Camila Giorgi of Italy. The champion from the week before, Radwanska, suffered a first round loss to Venus Williams in straight sets. The tournament then was faced with mid-match withdrawals from several players. Maria Sharapova was forced to retire in her first match back after a leg injury. After splitting sets with Barbora Strycova,  Sharapova retired with a left arm injury. That withdrawal joined the withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka in her second round match. Azarenka dropped the first set to Britain’s Johanna Konta and then retired with a left leg injury trailing 0-1 in the second set. American Coco Vandeweghe then withdrew from her semifinal match against Angelique Kerber of Germany. Falling behind Kerber 1-6 1-3, Vandeweghe checked out of the match, citing a left ankle injury that had been troublesome all week. But the withdrawals did not end there. In the final match between American Venus Williams and Garbine Muguruza of Spain, the Spaniard withdrew, trailing 3-6 0-3, citing a left ankle injury. So Venus Williams ended up winning a Premier level tournament, making it her 47th title on the WTA tour.

The Asian swing then moved into China for the Beijing Open (Oct. 5-11), a combined WTA and ATP event. Almost immediately the withdrawals started again. The first withdrawal was that of Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Struggling in her first round match with her ongoing concussion symptoms, Bouchard was forced to retire handing the win to German Andrea Petkovic. Her withdrawal unfortunately was not all that surprising, but the withdrawal of the #1 seed Simona Halep, with an ankle injury in her first round match against Lara Arruabarrena of Spain was not expected and that left Petra Kvitova the #2 seed the top player in the draw. The first round also saw the retirement of Lesia Tsurenko after losing the first set to the #7 seed Carla Suarez Navarro 3-6; that retirement was followed by the retirement of Coco Vandeweghe, who also withdrew citing continuing ankle issues, after losing the first set to Aga Radwanska by the same score of 3-6. Completing the withdrawals in the first round was the retirement of Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, who surrendered to Monica Puig after losing the first set 4-6. All the second round matches were played to completion, but in the next round American Madison Keys retired mid-match after losing the first set to Agnieska Radwanska, blaming the withdrawal on a thigh injury. The final saw Garbine Muguruza defeat Swiss player Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets. The win of this tournament by Muguruza draws attention to her withdrawal from the final the week before, as one can’t help but wonder how hurt she really was with such a quick recovery that enabled her to win the next week. The stands were more populated for this tournament, especially for the women’s final, but it is hard to know if the fans were there for the women’s match or the Rafa Nadal versus Novak Djokovic final that was to follow.

This week many of the women are in Hong Kong and once again withdrawals are a feature. Eugenie Bouchard called an end to her season before the draw was made. Casey Dellacqua of Australia withdrew prior to the start of the tournament with a concussion, and Garbine Muguruza also withdrew prior to the tournament start again citing the left ankle injury. American Christina McHale retired in her first round match while she was leading Yafan Wang of China 6-3 4-1, citing a left elbow injury.

The number of withdrawals is concerning on many fronts. Tennis is a sport where the players do not have guaranteed contracts; the more matches the player wins the more money the player makes, and the more matches played the increased opportunity to win and to earn more money. The problem where injuries are concerned is that there is the temptation to continue playing when an injury is minor, and with continued play the injury becomes worse or becomes a chronic condition. On the other hand, retirement from matches when injuries are aggravated, is a concern for the athlete, who must decide whether it is worth the financial and ranking results due to the withdrawal. From the fans’ and sponsors’ perspective mid match retirements are not good for the tournament. It is difficult to adjust the daily order of play when a match is terminated early, and it is the fan that paid for the day’s ticket that feels cheated out of the value. In the early rounds of a tournament when there are lots of matches being played this is not too big an issue. But in the tournaments in Asia there have been mid-match withdrawals in both semifinal and final matches, meaning fans paid more money for these tickets and there are no other matches being player on the grounds for fans to see.

So far the Asian swing has featured small crowds in the stands and numerous withdrawals at all stages of the tournaments. It is difficult to discern how many North Americans and Europeans are actually following these matches since the time zone differences means matches play out overnight. Whether or not the Asian Swing is a successful addition to the WTA remains to be seen.

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