I’ve always loved the notion of a season-ending tour finals, both on the WTA and ATP tours. As a stats geek, I’m always up to date with the points implications of each match and tournament, and what for each player, their ranking and their position in the race to the tour finals. So, when it finally reaches that part of the season when it becomes clear who’s going to make the final eight and who’s going to fall tragically short (Jo Konta, I feel for you), I’m already fully invested in the tournament and what lies ahead.
However, despite being the jewel in the crown on the WTA Tour, the WTA Finals has struggled over the past decade to truly live up to its billing. While it wears its history on its sleeve, the biggest names in women’s tennis have too often decided that focusing on winning the event is much less important than a preparing well for the next year’s season, and crowd sizes in its current location, Singapore, have been steadily disappointing. Serena Williams’ domination of the event between 2012 and 2014 masked some problems, but I certainly feel that over the last 10 or so years, the tournament has lacked the prestige that it had back in the mid-2000s.
2017 is different. While the tournament lacks the star names of Serena, Sharapova, Kvitova and Azarenka, for the first time in a long time it has something that recent editions have truly lacked – high stakes. The world number one ranking is up for grabs for all but one of the eight players in the field and, what’s more, there is the chance for one of these players to confirm themselves as the standout player of the 2017 season.
You can argue that, when you focus mainly on Grand Slam success, only two women have a true claim to being the player of the year in 2017. The first, Serena Williams, only played two tournaments this year but won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title whilst pregnant, and was ranked world number one for 10 weeks of the year. The second, Garbiñe Muguruza, won her first Wimbledon title and rose to the top of the WTA rankings for the first time in her career. She was picked as Player of the Year at the WTA Awards, and can point to the fact that she’s both won a Grand Slam and been ranked world number one as her evidence for being 2017’s standout female player.
Yet success doesn’t come only in Grand Slam form, as two other first-time world number ones, Karolina Pliskova and Simona Halep – neither a Grand Slam champion – prove. While it’s true that Pliskova’s ascendancy to the top was partly down to her great form in the second half of 2016, this isn’t the case for Halep, whose consistency since the beginning of the clay court season saw her get the number one ranking based on her tour-level form. If either of these women were to win the WTA Finals, and take the year-end number one ranking with it, they would have a legitimate claim to being the WTA player of 2017.
The same can be said for Elina Svitolina. Making her WTA Finals debut, the Ukrainian has enjoyed huge success at tour level in 2017, winning Premier 5 tournaments in Dubai, Rome and Toronto, racking up 10 wins over top 10 players across the season. While her Grand Slam form was disappointing, if she can win this event, and also grab the world number one ranking, who’s to say she wasn’t the standout player of the year?
With everything that’s at stake, the fact that the tournament is so open makes it even more alluring. No one can pick a definitive favourite, with eighth ranked Caroline Garcia seeming to stand as good a chance as world number one Halep. 2017 is the shot in the arm that the WTA Finals needed, and I really hope that it lives up to what it offers.