Serena Williams wasn’t just one of the biggest stories in tennis this year, she was one of the biggest stories in American culture. After winning the U.S. Open in 2014, she won the first three majors this year for the first time in her career, giving her the second Serena Slam of her career, 11 years after her first.
This summer, as she headed into the U.S. Open with a chance to win the Calendar Grand Slam and tie Steffi Graf atop the list of Open Era major champions with 22 singles titles, she brought unprecedented attention to women’s tennis: The women’s U.S. Open final sold out before the men’s for the first time in history.
“There’s never been a moment for women’s tennis like the build-up for the U.S. Open,” Ben Rothenberg, a New York Times writer who regularly covers women’s tennis, told ThinkProgress.
But last week, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) got a glimpse of what life without Williams will look like at the WTA Finals in Singapore, where the top eight singles and doubles players in the world competed for a chance to win the Billie Jean King Cup and split a $7 million purse.
It was an exciting week in Singapore — five-time major winner Maria Sharapova, up-and-coming Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova all showed great form, while the nimble Polish player Agnieszka Radwanska highlighted the parity at the top of the game with a surprise run to the final.
— We Are Tennis (@WeAreTennis) November 1, 2015
Still, there was an obvious void without No. 1 Williams, who decided to take the rest of the season off after her shocking loss to the spirited Italian veteran Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open in order to “properly address (her) health and take the time to heal.” Without an obvious favorite and front-runner, and without the star power Williams provides, the event noticeably suffered.
“Parity is not good for a sport that has to work for attention. People understand dominance and they’re interested in dominance,” Rothenberg said. “The dominance from Serena has been amazing for the sport, the only caveat is that she’s getting older and there will be a vacuum.”
Indeed. Williams is 34 years old, and while she’s as good as she’s ever been and has given no timeline for retirement, it’s inevitable that her dominant reign will come to an end sooner rather than later.
It’s an unfortunate truth that in today’s society, women’s sports still have to work harder for attention and fans than men’s sports, and this will be particularly true for women’s tennis once Williams’ reign does come to an end.
The WTA seems to understand that, as well, and is focusing on highlighting the next generation of stars, improving the structure of the tour, and securing the broadcasting contracts that will help women’s tennis maintain its position as the global leader in women’s professional sport.
As Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated put it, “‘Ride Serena as long as possible,’ is not a business plan.”
Promoting And Educating Rising Stars
When Williams goes, the WTA will lose its most recognizable face. So in order to help casual fans become more familiar with next wave of champions, the WTA has created a Rising Stars brand. There is frequently real-estate on the WTA’s home page dedicated to these young stars-in-the-making, and the WTA Finals even includes a WTA Rising Stars Invitational, where after a fan vote, four players are invited to Singapore to play in an exhibition tournament.
“I think the WTA is doing a pretty good job pushing the Rising Stars concept,” Rothenberg said. “They are trying to groom people for stardom, which is good, because that’s long-term planning.”
Rothenberg pointed out that the actual execution of the Singapore event leaves a lot to be desired — because of its placement on the calendar, the best eligible players often don’t play because it coincides with WTA events that offer actual ranking points and prize money. However, the two-year-old event has had some highlights; the two champions, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, have outgoing personalities and powerful games with huge upsides, and the tournament gave them a chance to not only play for new fans, but to interact with international media and gain invaluable exposure.
— WTA (@WTA) October 25, 2015
Journalists who watched Osaka play last week proclaimed: “A star is born.”
Overall, the WTA is filled with players who seem to have the potential for greatness, from Eugenie Bouchard, the talented Canadian who made it to the final of Wimbledon in 2014 but struggled in 2015, to Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, to Martina Hingis mentee Belinda Bencic to Muguruza, who will finish the year ranked No. 3.
But through its Rising Stars initiatives, the WTA is making sure not only that these players are promoted, but that the players know their sport is also a business, and that they have to put in the work on and off the court to keep the WTA successful.
“I certainly know the WTA tour is trying to make sure that the younger players know how much hard work has been done by so many women over so many years to get the women’s game where it is today,” Rothenberg said. Most notably, the organization holds a program with founder Billie Jean King at the U.S. Open every year where King talks to the rising stars about the history of the women’s tour and how much work she and other WTA trailblazers did to make the WTA the global sensation it is today.
“It would be very easy for [the WTA players] to show up now and take it for granted and think that this is what they automatically deserve without understanding the long battle that it took.”
Improving The Calendar
Steve Simon, the former tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells who took over as WTA CEO when Stacey Allaster abruptly departed last month, was clear about one thing when he addressed the media in Singapore last week: The WTA calendar still needs work.
“Clearly one of the big issues we have right now is dealing with — which every sport does — is getting our athletes through the season healthy,” Simon said. “There isn’t a league or sport out there where at the end of the year the athletes aren’t dinged up and aren’t 100 percent. We have to look at our structure and look at what we do to give the athlete the best chance to be as close to 100 percent at the end of the year as they can.”
Currently, the WTA calendar spans from the first week in January to the first week in November and includes 59 tournaments in 33 countries. While the women’s season does end nearly a month before the men’s, it is still a grueling schedule that is exhausting both physically and mentally. Over the past decade, injuries and burnout have wreaked havoc on the tour’s elite players. Over the last decade, a back injury derailed No. 1 Dinara Safina’s career and superstars Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters both retired early. This year, Sharapova didn’t complete a match between Wimbledon and Singapore due to a leg injury, Halep has been dealing with nagging injuries all season, and, of course, Williams ended her history-chasing season early due to fatigue.
Simon hasn’t offered specifics yet, though he mentioned a desire to shorten the post-U.S. Open schedule and keep the Asian expansion in check. But fixing the calendar is not as simple as just cutting back the the number of tournaments to appease the top players, because the rest of the women on the tour are often eager for more opportunities to play and earn a living.
“The women’s game at the level below the top level has so many fewer tournaments than the men’s tour,” Rothenberg said. “Cutting the number of women’s events because the top players are complaining isn’t the right way to go. Ultimately, I think the tour should be wary of shrinking and taking away opportunities and locking out tournaments.”
Going forward, Simon is going to figure out how to strike a balance with the calendar that keeps the best players as healthy and fresh as possible, while also providing enough opportunities for the rest of the tour — over 2,500 players from 92 countries — to have a chance to be successful.
“The calendar is the structure and the foundation of the tour,” Simon said. “To do some of the things we have to do, we have to make some fundamental changes in the calendar and our approach to it.”
Bolstering Media Distribution
Last year, the WTA announced a 10-year, $525 million television rights deal with their production partner, PERFORM that ensured that by 2017, all 2,000 WTA main-draw matches will be produced and broadcast on digital and cable channels, almost tripling the amount of matches broadcast in the previous deal.
“If PERFORM does everything they’re saying they can do, it will put the WTA ahead of the ATP [the Association of Tennis Professionals, the governing body for men’s tennis],” Rothenberg said. “Overall, it’s a good move for the tour, and an important step forward.”
That deal, the largest media rights deal in the history of women’s sports, was a prime example of how the WTA can leverage its recent success, which has certainly been boosted if not fueled by Williams, and secure the contracts and innovations that will guarantee a brighter tomorrow.
After all, at the end of the day, the rising stars and an improved schedule won’t mean anything to the WTA if the end product isn’t getting to an audience.
“Whenever Serena exits — and again, you hope it’s years and years from now — the WTA will, inevitably, experience a lull,” Wertheim wrote. “This is sports, whether it’s the NBA post-Michael Jordan or the Yankees after Derek Jeter. The good news: they will still play events and hand out trophies. New stars will come along. They always do.”
Indeed, there will always be a world No. 1 and major champions,ad while the transcendent dominance of Williams can’t be manufactured, there is much more to women’s tennis than just the 21-time major champion. This year’s WTA finals was a reminder that the show must, and will, go on, with or without its leading lady.
A previous version of this post said Garbine Muguruza would finish the year ranked No. 2, but it has been edited to reflect her year-end ranking of No. 3.