The WTA hopes the success of Li Na and other Chinese players helps expand its popularity in China. (Rob Griffith/AP)
The WTA updated its 2013 calendar and made significant changes for 2014, when the tour will solidify its push into Chinese markets with two new tournaments, as well as a new event in Rio de Janiero. The tour also announced a 10 percent increase in prize money this year, from $53.3 million to $58.7 million, not including the Grand Slams.
Five thoughts on the announcement:
1. Is the WTA relying too much on Li Na? The WTA has made no secrets about its desire to tap the Chinese market, establishing a Beijing office in 2008 and upgrading the Beijing tournament to Premier status in 2009. It hit the jackpot in 2011, when Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a Slam, capturing the French Open. With that, the doors to the Chinese market swung open. The tour continued its expansion this year with a new event in Shenzhen, won by Li, and it will continue its expansion in 2014.
The Toray Pan Pacific Open will end its 30-year run in Tokyo and relocate next year to Wuhan, China, Li's hometown. Wuhan will retain the tournament's Premier 5 status, promising seven of the year-end top 10-ranked players competing for over $2 million. The end of the Tokyo tournament, which spent years as the WTA's primary outpost in Asia, is illustrative of the global seachange. With the relocation, Japan will only have one tournament on the calendar, an International-level event in Osaka.
In addition to the new tournament in Wuhan, the WTA will relocate the International tournament in Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, marking the first time a tournament will be held there since 1993. But we're not done yet. This year the WTA adds three $125,000 tournaments in China, in Suzhou, Ningbo and Nanjing. On the whole, the changes mean five of the 18 tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region will be held in China, and three of the six WTA 125 tournaments will also be in China.
The immediate question is whether the larger tournaments are sustainable without Li's involvement. Obviously the commitments from other high-profile players such as Maria Sharapova are important -- don't count on Serena Williams, who hasn't played in Asia since 2009 -- but Li's the one they need on board. Just a year ago the 31-year-old was adamant that her days on tour were numbered, that she did not see herself on tour by the 2016 Olympics. Her new partnership with Carlos Rodriguez has infused her with renewed energy and purpose, perhaps issuing a stay on her thoughts of leaving the sport sooner rather than later.
2. Renewed focus on South America. The WTA will debut two tournaments in South America over the next two years, beginning with an International event in Florianopolis, Brazil, this year, followed by the relocation of the International event Memphis to Rio de Janiero in 2014. Unlike the ATP, the WTA has had a weak presence in South America and hasn't been able to cultivate top-level talent there since Gabriela Sabatini. With Gisela Dulko's retirement, the highest-ranked South American player is Paula Ormaechea from Argentina at No. 141. Hopefully the investment in South America pays off not just financially for the tour but also in inspiring a future generation.
3. Goodbye Wozniacki Open, Hello Radwanska Invitational. Should we read any more into this than we should? The tournament in Copenhagen, which launched when Wozniacki was on her way to the No. 1 ranking, will be relocated to Katowice, Poland, 50 miles from Krakow, the home of No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska. The WTA has done well to capitalize on Radwanska's marketability in Poland, even releasing post-match interview videos conducted in Polish for fans back home. Out with the old and in with the new? I don't think so. Even with her struggles, Wozniacki is a big draw at tournaments. Her popularity hasn't taken much of a dip. She reminds me of Ana Ivanovic in that way, a player whose popularity remained stable even when she dropped out of the top 30.
4. Wait, Birmingham? England? Unlike the ATP, the women already have a Premier grass court event in Eastbourne, so it's surprising to see the smaller event in Birmingham elevated to Premier status as well. The tournament has been able to attract big names in the past -- Sharapova and Li played Birmingham in recent years -- and the Edgbaston Priory Club is undergoing a $19 million site renovation that will see a permanent Centre Court structure (the current temporary court only seats 1,500 fans) and improve the facilities. But none of that matter if they can't fix their grass issues. Here's a picture I took last year of one of the outer courts during a couple of Melanie Oudin's matches. Yes, that's supposed to be grass.
Forget Centre Court. Let's get some actual grass on the ground first.
5. Tennis stays in Istanbul
: While the WTA Championships will leave Istanbul for another city in 2014 (rumored to be Singapore), it's good to see the WTA will remain a presence in the city that has served as a tremendous host these last three years. The Istanbul Cup will return in 2014 after a three year-hiatus to make room for the Championships.