The headline for the story on the WTA Tour’s website says this:
“WTA announces changes to 2019 calendar.”
That’s a nice, innocuous-sounding headline, even if 2019 is already in full swing and it feels a little late to be making changes in the tournament schedule.
In the first few paragraphs, the Tour announces “a new WTA Premier event in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou which marks the start of this season’s Asian swing.”
Prize money will be $1 million this year, and a projected $1.5 million in 2020.
“Operated by APG, Central Plains Tennis Centre and the China Open, the Zhengzhou event represents a stronger player flow on the global calendar as the WTA Tour transitions to Asia and culminates at the WTA Finals Shenzhen,” the press release states.
(Of course, there were already two events in Asia that week: Hiroshima and Nanchang).
Tough week on the calendar
It is already a challenge to attract the top players in this slot, given it comes right after a Grand Slam and on the other side of the world. As well, with much bigger events in Wuhan and Beijing coming later in the month, a lot of top players want a break after the hot North American summer.
Scroll further, and the story talks about the new July events in Latvia (replacing the Moscow River Cup clay-court event, which only lasted one year) and a clay-court event in Lausanne, which replaces the one in Gstaad. That was not precisely news, although it’s now confirmed.
The New Haven spot on the WTA Tour calendar, as of the start of the season, was blank. So something was going to happen.
But wait, we still haven’t gotten to the real nugget.
Keep scrolling ….
Scroll down some more, below the photo of Aryna Sabalenka being mobbed by fans in New Haven, and you get to the crux of it. In journalism, it’s called “burying the lede”.
That new tournament in Zhengzhou isn’t actually “new”. It is “instead of” the long-running, storied tournament in New Haven, CT that precedes the US Open every year.
They put it this way:
“In addition, the Connecticut Open in New Haven will not take place in 2019.”
They should add, “or ever again”.
“The tournament, a celebrated event on the WTA calendar for 21 years, made the decision to sell its sanction after its financial model became unviable without a title sponsor,” the WTA writes.
Until 2010, there also was an ATP Tour stop there.
New Haven demise inevitable, but sad
That the news that yet another U.S.-based professional tennis event is dead was buried so far down is good spin by the WTA, of course. It’s also not a shock. It was clear during the 2018 edition that attendance in New Haven was tragically down.
It’s already February. But the WTA says it “is looking at several opportunities for new events in the United States” in that pre-US Open slot. “One such event could begin as early as this year, with a second event added in 2020.”
Note the use of the word “could”.
There had been nothing stopping the WTA from adding a second event that week, of course. And, if they do it now, they will only give this potential new 2019 event one year before it has to compete for the pool of players willing to play the week before a major. The new event would also have less than six months to get up and running, promote, recruit players, and generate interest in its market.
Perhaps the intent is to split the 48-player draw that New Haven had into a pair of 32-player draws.
“We are pleased to present a robust 2019 Tour calendar. We look forward to bringing women’s tennis to Zhengzhou and the Henan Province and continue to grow the sport across China and the Asia Pacific region. And we are additionally excited about the interest we are receiving in the marketplace from two US cities,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said.
In that order. China is definitely where the money is at the moment.
Another new facility to be built
The press release also announces that in Zhengzhou, a “new state of the art facility will be constructed that includes an 8,000-seat stadium, slated to be completed for 2020.”
It’s worth noting that similar promises were made in Shenzhen, China. The WTA took the big bucks and committed to holding the WTA Finals there for 10 years.
But that reported 12,000, $450 million facility will not be ready in time. The inaugural event this October will have to be played at an alternate facility.
But what about the other three?
A not-so-minor detail: there already are three WTA Tour International-level events scheduled for the week on the calendar that will now be occupied by Zhengzhou.
There is the long-running WTA event in Quebec City. It was once a super-successful event, but has struggled in recent years. In fact, it moved to that mid-September date a few years ago to try to attract a better field.
And then, there is Hiroshima. That tournament will be in only its second edition at the new location this year after relocating from Tokyo.
Finally, there is Nanchang. That tournament already was bumped from a July slot to mid-September for 2019, when an event in Palermo, Italy was added back to the mix.
There’s no chance the WTA will have four tournaments the week after a Grand Slam – or any time.
What will happen to those events? There are three more tournaments the following week (Guangzhou, Seoul and the Toray Premier in Japan). So it’s not as though they can just shift one of them back a week.
Weak post-US Open fields
As a barometer, here is a look at the fields for the tournaments held that week in 2018.
Quebec City: No. 1 seed Sabalenka (ranked No. 20, but No. 39 at the entry deadline. She lost first round). No. 2 was Petra Martic (No. 47). The champion was Pauline Parmentier, ranked No. 71
Hiroshima: No. 1 seed was Shuai Zhang (No. 34). Champion was Su-Wei Hsieh (No. 43).
Nanchang: No. 1 seed was a wild card, Shuai Zhang (No. 30) – (The tournament was held in July in 2018). No. 2 seed Qiang Wang, ranked No. 80, won the tournament.
With Tennis Canada now owning the Quebec City event, and recognizing that it is struggling and having made no guarantees about its future, it’s not out of the question that they would sell the license to one of those proposed new U.S. events.