Out of nowhere, a brand-new WTA Tour Premier event has sprung up in Li Na's hometown of Wuhan, China this season, to take place Sept. 21-27.
And the Tour is doing everything it can to ensure the first year of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open is a big success. A press release sent out today says 19 of the top 20 players are committed to play; only Victoria Azarenka is missing from the list.
The release included enthusiastic quotes from some of the scheduled participants:
"I can't wait to get to Wuhan and play. Coming to a new city and playing a brand new event is going to be a fantastic experience for all of us. I'm so excited to be part of it."
“It’s always exciting to play in a different city and to experience a new tournament. Li Na has told me about Wuhan so I’m really looking forward to being there and playing in front of new fans.”
“I'm so proud that my city is staging such a prestigious tournament. I am very excited about being part of such a strong field of players and I can't wait to get on court and play in front of my home crowd."
The schedule-shuffling required to fit in this event, which will go back-to-back with a similar Premier event in Beijing the very next week, made a casualty out of the Toray Pan Pacific Open – a Premier 5 stop on the tour last year and for years before that.
And that's not the only change from a year ago. The mission often stated by WTA Tour head honcho Stacey Allaster to "grow the global brand" – this means Asia, folks – has stuffed the WTA Tour calendar full to bursting during a two-week period when most of the top players are (or should be) taking a break after the long, hot U.S. summer hard-court season.
The Tokyo tournament has been moved up a week and now will still be a Premier, but the total prize money has been slashed from over $2.3 million a year ago to $1 million this time around. Its draw size has essentially been halved from a year ago from a 64-player draw with eight first-round byes, to 32. And it now must compete with events in Seoul, Korea and Guangzhou, China.
Petra Kvitova won Tokyo a year ago, and the list of champions during its 30-year existence is stellar: Sharapova, Hingis (five times), Davenport (four times), Graf, Sabatini, Navratilova. Those days are apparently over, the focus shifted to potentially bigger pots of gold.
The week before that (the week right after the U.S. Open), there also will be three WTA Tour events: Québec City, Hong Kong and Tashkent.
A year ago, there were two events on the WTA Tour calendar during each of those two weeks, with Tokyo standing alone a week later in the third.
Even when the far deeper ATP Tour stages three tournaments in one week, the player fields end up pretty diluted. The WTA Tour is spreading itself awfully thin with its ambitious new fall Asian configuration (especially right after the Open) and intensive focus on adding events in China.
Here are the top players committed to play the six post-U.S. Open tournaments (current rankings in parentheses). Note that Venus Williams has announced she'll play in Québec City for the first time, a blessing for a tournament that's debuting a new tournament sponsor this year in Banque Nationale and wouldn't have even been able to boast a top-25 player (and only one top-50 player) in the draw without her.
Guangzhou, rated an "International" level event, has a total purse of $500,000 that is double the typical International-level purse. Yet it can't even boast a top-20 player in the field – at least not yet.
All of this is preliminary; there will be, as there always are, withdrawals. Perhaps there will be some last-minute wild cards as well. But the Wuhan-Beijing combo works against that possibility.
QUEBEC CITY: Madison Keys (28), Ajla Tomljanovic (55), Kristina Mladenovic (75)
HONG KONG: Shuai Zhang (31, struggling with injuries), Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (33), Daniela Hantuchova (35)
TASHKENT: Bojana Jovanovski (32), Irina Camelia Begu (62), Stefanie Voegele (69)
TOKYO: The field is strong, with Kerber, Jankovic, Ivanovic, Azarenka, Cibulkova, Wozniacki, Pennetta and Errani all on the list. But the very, very best are missing. And it is going to be asking a whole lot for these players to play this event, then the new tournament in Wuhan, then the one in Beijing back-to-back-to-back. It is a bunch of injuries and withdrawals waiting to happen – especially if any of the above-mentioned players make a deep run in New York.
SEOUL: Agnieszka Radwanska (5), Ekaterina Makarova (18), Klara Koukalova (36)
GUANGZHOU: Sloane Stephens (21), Samantha Stosur (22), Alizé Cornet (23).
The WTA will do everything it can to ensure the focus is all on Wuhan in September. No doubt Allaster will be there, waxing enthousiastically to media and sponsors about the great new frontier for women's tennis.
But the fact that Chinese superstar and hometown heroine Li Na has cancelled her entire U.S. summer series, including the U.S. Open, because of ongoing knee issues has to be a concern. Li probably feels massive pressure (from the Tour, from her sponsors, from her hometown) to get back in time to play both Wuhan and Beijing. If she makes the date she'll be rusty (not having played since Wimbledon), likely not 100 per cent healthy, and definitely not in the happiest place.
Li is 32, and quite clearly her future is more uncertain than it was to start the 2014 season. Trying to grow the global brand in that entire region without her as the front-and-center ambassador is going to be a challenge. Despite the presence of top fields in Wuhan and Beijing, Li is the one with the mandate to SELL tennis in China, where in the last few years even the massive joint ATP/WTA event in Beijing has had a lot of empty seats for various reasons, some of them location-related.
The WTA's managing director for Asia Pacific said as much in the press release.
"We have 48 of the top 50 players in the world all travelling to Li Na’s home town of Wuhan to compete for almost $US 2.5 million in prize money," the statement read. "Li Na’s achievements, combined with this Government vision, will showcase the beautiful city of Wuhan to the world and inspire the next generation of Li Nas to play tennis.”
In the end, the real attention next month should focus not on Wuhan, but on all the smaller events in the two weeks before it.
International-level events on the WTA Tour often play before friends and family (Baku, after Wimbledon, was a depressing example of that). Now more than ever because of the three-event weeks, the tournaments will be bereft of players most casual fans can recognize.
What happens during those weeks will be a far greater indicator of the general overall health of the WTA Tour than the one tournament in Wuhan, where they're really putting on the dog.