The WTA is the governing body of women’s tennis and the Finals is its showpiece event, with the top eight players in the world meeting to compete for the last title of the year.
But the Finals have been marred by controversy and disruption in recent seasons. The women’s tour signed a lucrative deal with Shenzhen in 2019 but it was not held the following year due to Covid-19, and has not resumed following the WTA’s decision to not play events in China over the disappearance of Peng Shuai.
In the interim, a late decision has been made over the host city of the Finals in each of the last three years. Guadalajara staged the tournament in 2021 before it headed to Fort Worth in Texas last year, where the poor attendances and swathes of empty seats were largely put down to the organisation of the event.
Problems have arisen again this year, with the WTA only announcing Cancun as the host of the Finals two months ago. The event is being held in a temporary arena, which has drawn criticism, while Sabalenka said it was “not acceptable” that she could only practice on the court for the first time until the day before her opening match.
Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion and runner-up at the Finals last season, took to Instagram after her dominant 6-0 6-1 win over Maria Sakkai and said she was happy to “overcome the conditions” on her way to an opening win.
Sabalenka continued: "I have to say that I am very disappointed with the WTA and the experience so far at the WTA Finals. As a player, I feel really disrespected by the WTA. I think most of us do.
"This is not the level of organisation we expect for the Finals. To be honest, I don’t feel safe moving on this court a lot of the time, the bounce is not consistent at all, and we weren’t able to practise on this court until yesterday for the first time.
"It’s just not acceptable to me with so much on the line and so much at stake."
Following a 7-6 (3) 6-0 defeat by second seed Swiatek, Vondrousova wrote on Instagram: “My first WTA Finals is not at all what I imagined. We work hard all year to get to the finals and in the end it’s just a disappointment.
“(The) stadium is not at all ready for the matches and to me it feels like the people from WTA are absolutely not interested in how we who are supposed to play on that court feel. We do not feel that anyone listens to us and is interested in our opinions. Very sad.”
Swiatek added to the criticism, saying in her on-court interview that the surface was “not comfortable” while she also appealed for more fans to attend the matches.
In response to Sabalenka’s comments, the WTA said: “We’re pleased to host the WTA Finals in Cancun for the first time and worked hard to construct a stadium where the world’s top eight women’s tennis players and doubles teams compete head-to-head.
“The team has worked diligently on an expedited timeline amid weather challenges to ensure the stadium and court meet our strict performance standards.”
There were reports earlier this season that Saudi Arabia has expressed an interest in hosting this year’s WTA Finals and a one-year contract with Cancun has left that door open ahead of 2024.
The idea of the WTA hosting an event in Saudi Arabia is a controversial subject, given the scrutiny of the country’s record on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.