It should have been the crescendo at the end of the women’s tennis season, yet the WTA Finals in Fort Worth, Texas served to highlight the identity crisis afflicting the game.
The quality of tennis on the court is not an issue, with world No.1 Iga Swiatek serving up a standard of play that is fearsome to behold, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur breaking through with a story that any sporting athlete would cherish, and the same being true of teenager Coco Gauff.
So why did the world look on at the WTA finals – an event that concluded with champion Caroline Garcia receiving a cheque for $1.57million on Monday – and question whether tournament organisers had forgotten to put tickets on sale?
WE OUT HEREEE pic.twitter.com/uOuvE6ScQo
— Plisqueenova (@Pliskova_Fanss) November 6, 2022
Sparse would be a polite word to describe the attendance at the 14,000 seater Dickies Arena in Fort Worth in the opening few days of the event, with the late booking of the venue and short lead-in time to sell tickets being the only possible excuse to explain the lamentable attendance.
While fans did start to show up with a little more enthusiasm for finals weekend, this was clearly not the end-of-season spectacular the WTA had in mind for their showpiece tournament.
Yet this problem is not just associated with the WTA Finals.
This week’s Billie Jean King Cup finals in Glasgow, the blue riband event of women’s team tennis, will host some of the game’s biggest names in a tournament that used to be known as the Fed Cup.
Once again, ticket sales are struggling to get out of first gear, with women’s tennis failing to draw anything like the packed stands we saw for the men’s ATP 1000 tournament in Paris last week or what is to come at the upcoming ATP Finals in Turin.
So why is tennis losing the race to jump on the women’s sport train that is gathering momentum elsewhere?
After all, tennis has broken down so many sporting barriers over the decades, with Billie Jean King winning the battle for equal gender pay in the early 1970s, followed by the initiation of joint events featuring both men and women which now form part of the tennis fabric.
Yet, in a year when women’s sport has enjoyed so many high-profile success stories – a crowd of more than 80,000 fans packed into Wembley to watch England’s women footballers win the European Championships last summer and the sell-out crowd at Claressa Shields’ boxing showdown with Savannah Marshall in London last month – women’s tennis appears to be struggling.
Wimbledon’s decision to end the ‘women only’ singles days on the second Tuesday and Thursday for the 2022 Championships, to ensure men’s matches are played on all days aside from Ladies’ Finals Saturday, was a bold move, yet it may also have been a commercial decision.
Having a mix of high-profile male and female players on the same schedule is clearly more appealing to the crowds that may not be tennis aficionados and turn up at Wimbledon for their one blast of tennis action every summer.
They want to see familiar big names, and the clear indication is that the women’s game is lacking the star power that was once provided by icons like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and latterly Venus and Serena Williams, and the recently retired former world No.1 Ashleigh Barty.
This tennis year started with Barty as the shining light of the women’s game and her win at the Australian Open was one of the highlights of 2022, with tears of joy shed around the world as the affable Aussie won on home soil and took the acclaim of her adoring fans.
Yet Barty’s exit from the game a few weeks later was a hammer blow for tennis and on the evidence of the last few weeks, the WTA, and all who have a passion for promoting the women’s game, have a big job on their hands to fire up the burners up on their tour as we head into the new year.