Serving up the WTA Championships in Singapore

Serena Williams winning the WTA Championships

Hey, that’s easier than I thought!

Get ready your ear plugs — the WTA Championships is coming to Singapore! World-class shriek-fest, magnified and reverberated in decibel levels many times over in the echo chamber that is the Indoor Stadium, giant LED screens flashing instant cues to applause when an ace is served, and air-gun-toting ground crew shooting balls of free T-shirts into the spectator stands to the bang of disco music during intervals, all against the backdrop of top women’s tennis players slugging it out in a season-ending battle to see who can hit flatter and harder, hug the baseline longer, and double-fault less than the opponent.

There is no doubt that clinching the WTA Championships is a very big coup for Singapore. This is the biggest women’s tennis event in the world that any city outside the Grand Slam hosts of London, Paris, New York and Melbourne could possibly stage. I have previously suggested that Singapore is a good location to host an Australian Open warm up event in early January, but the WTA Championships is on paper a much bigger deal.

However, some fans may regard it an unforced error on the part of the authorities to serve up a women’s event instead of a men’s. The reality is that professional women’s tennis has been in the doldrums for some time now, notably since the retirement of Justin Henin and Kim Clijsters. The only superstars left in the game currently are the ageing Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova. It says something about the level of competition when a Williams sister can turn up unseeded at a major and coast to victory despite having just come back from a long injury absence.

As these three have been playing irregularly, a motley crew of other players have taken their places on top of the rankings, only to slip down into oblivion faster than the umpire can say “new balls please” (read Dina Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki). You also get random one-hit wonder Grand Slams champions hardly ever seen again (read Anna Ivanovic, Francesca Schiavone and Sam Stosur). As a result, the top eight that qualifies for the WTA Championships can throw up obscure names sometimes, compared to the more established names you tend to see on the men’s equivalent World Tour Finals currently held in London every November. Honestly, as a big tennis fan myself, the WTA Championships is one event that doesn’t register on my viewing radar.

Regardless, this is still a very good development for the sports scene in Singapore, especially for live sports-starved fans. Recent tennis tournaments have increasingly been lured to either China, where a huge consumer market is attractive to the ATP and WTA, or the Middle East, where good money is on the table. So we can expect substantial investments to have been  put up in Singapore’s bid. The New York Times reported this five-year deal to be in excess of US$70 million, and that the Indoor Stadium will be configured to seat only up to 8,000 spectators initially as the organisers are not even sure if the fan base is big enough in Singapore. This can only translate into higher ticket prices for the local masses. I can tell you, as an indication, that tickets for the World Tour Finals in London aren’t exactly cheap when you consider the short sessions (one singles and one doubles in each) and shorter matches (3 setters) compared to more value-for-money Wimbledon tickets.

Tennis is a sport that is growing in popularity in Singapore, like in other nouveau riche nations, and it’s great that we are encouraging greater participation whether as a spectacle sport or actual having a go with a racket. If we get more kids to start playing from young, maybe — just maybe — we could one day produce our own Michael Chang or Li Na.