WTA Finals: Records, history and the evolution of showpiece event of women’s tennis

By pitting the world’s best players against each other every year, the WTA Finals have been a celebration of women’s tennis for over half a century.

The end-of-year championship sees the eight top-ranked singles players and eight top-ranked doubles pairings battle it out to be crowned the ultimate champions of the year.

The tournament has come a long way from its humble beginnings to where it now stands as a lucrative showpiece event.

Long history

In 1972, the very first edition of the tournament took place and was billed as the Virginia Slims Championships. It came a year before the official formation of the WTA, but the organization still considers it the first in its long history.

Held in Boca Raton, Florida, the first event was won by a 17-year-old Chris Evert, who would go on to become one of the best female players in history – the American won another three WTA Finals titles after her first success.

The tournament’s birth came amid a historic time for women’s tennis. One of the sport’s biggest icons, Billie Jean King, was dominating on the court, but was also advocating for better conditions in the women’s game.

In 1973, after a meeting with more than 60 other players, King founded the WTA – a new tour uniting all of women’s professional tennis. That same year, King would go on to beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Chris Evert won the first end-of-season championship in 1972 at the age of 17. - Mark Foley/AP
Chris Evert won the first end-of-season championship in 1972 at the age of 17. - Mark Foley/AP

With women’s tennis entering a new, more prosperous era, the WTA Finals returned for a second year. Evert, once again, took the crown.

After finding a market and with the ambition of increasing the popularity of the women’s game, the championships then moved to Los Angeles in the following year, before heading to New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1977. It moved to Oakland in 1978 before returning to the Big Apple where it would stay for 20 years, evolving into the more polished product of the 21st centry.

Since the new millennium, the Finals have been on a global tour, with the event staged in Spain, Turkey and Singapore. This year’s tournament is being played in Cancun, Mexico.

Despite the concept remaining much the same, many things have changed over the years. Unlike now, the first two editions of the competition were played on clay. Between 1974 and 2000, the matches switched to indoor carpet before moving to indoor hard courts from 2001 – with the exception of 2008-2010 and 2021 when the tournament was played on outdoor hard courts.

Serena Williams won the trophy five times during her glittering career. - Julian Finney/Getty Images
Serena Williams won the trophy five times during her glittering career. - Julian Finney/Getty Images

The prize money has also skyrocketed since those early years: Evert won a total of $25,000 as champion of the 1972 edition, whereas a player could win over $3 million of the $9 million prize pot by going undefeated in this year’s singles tournament.

The format for the event has also changed multiple times over the past 51 editions of the tournament.

Between 1984-98, for example, the singles final was a best-of-five set match. Three of those matches went the distance – Monica Seles’ victory over Gabriela Sabatini in 1990 is the longest in the tournament’s history, lasting three hours and 29 minutes.

Now, all matches are best-of-three-sets, with the eight players or pairs being split into two round-robin groups. The best two players from each group progress to the semifinals to battle it out for a place in the final.

2023 roster

This year’s edition will be the second time Mexico has played host to the Finals – Guadalajara was the venue for the 2021 championship.

Reigning champion Caroline Garcia will not be able to defend her crown after the Frenchwoman failed to win enough ranking points to qualify.

Instead, there will be an entirely new winner of the trophy, given none of the eight qualified players have ever won the competition before.

Aryna Sabalenka will head to the field as the world No. 1 and will be joined by Wimbledon champion Markéta Vondroušová, US Open champion Coco Gauff, French Open champion Iga Świątek, Elena Rybakina and US star Jessica Pegula.

Czech Republic’s Karolína Muchová was forced to withdraw from the competition through injury and has subsequently been replaced by Greece’s Maria Sakkari.

Aryna Sabalenka heads into the 2023 tournament as the world No. 1. - Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Aryna Sabalenka heads into the 2023 tournament as the world No. 1. - Sarah Stier/Getty Images

As well as bidding for the singles title, American stars Gauff and Pegula are aiming to win the doubles trophy and the pair heads to Mexico as the top-ranked team in the world.


All eight women will take to the court hoping to emulate some of the tournament’s previous champions, many of which are now household names and icons of the sport.

Martina Navratilova still holds the record for most singles titles at the event, winning the eighth and last of her career in 1986.

Serena Williams and Steffi Graf sit together in second, winning five titles each after dominating the generations they each respectively played in.

There are a number of stars who did not win the singles title, including legends such as Margaret Court and Virginia Wade. King is another icon to have never won the singles title, despite the trophy being named in her honor. However, all three women won the doubles tournament at least once.

This year’s WTA Finals begin on October 29, with the final taking place on November 5.

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