Go East, Young Lady

Thursday, December 12, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

A revised 2014 WTA calendar, along with the 2015 version, was released today. The outstanding change is the increased emphasis on events in the Far East. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the WTA has performed a crisp 180-degree turn, away from Europe and the Americas, and cast its eyes toward China, Singapore, and other eastern regions.

The looming question: Is the WTA merely following the money, or are the demographics of the sport really changing—or both?

China hosted just two WTA events as recently as 2012. But the growth of the Asian presence on the WTA tour, led by Li Na, has created an appetite among Far Eastern sponsors and promoters. Thus, there will be a record six WTA Premier and International tournaments on/in the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The WTA will also stage four WTA 125K Series events (Nanchang, Suzhou, Ningbo, and Chinese Taipei).

The expansion includes a new Premier event in Wuhan, the home of the 2011 Roland Garros champion Li, as well as two inaugural International tournaments in Hong Kong and Tianjin. If the old adage was, “Go West, young man,” the new one broadcast by the WTA is “Go East, young lady.”

This is an interesting development on a variety of levels, not the least of which is that women’s tennis seems to be in greater demand in a region where there has never been much of a public drive for women’s rights. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe appear stagnant. Could it be that the luster has worn off something that, not so many years ago, still seemed not only new and exciting, but also socially relevant? 

Back in the day (and I’m going even further back, into the last century now), buying a ticket to a Virginia Slims event was almost like making a donation to the women’s movement. That has changed, and the WTA appears to recognize it. Hence its “Strong is Beautiful” campaign, which in some ways seems to mimic the chutzpah and exuberance of that legendary Virginia Slims slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”

But conceptually, it’s a lot like a hedge fund that tries to balance financial risk on one hand with safe bets on the other. 

Let’s face it, we’re living in the age of the diva. It’s also a time marked by an overt attempt to trade on sex and sheer physical appeal, and tennis is never immune to such larger cultural trends. The WTA has fought to capitalize on these powerful (and commercially potent) forces while trying to emphasize that it’s still just as much about glutes as glam. The amended slogan today might be, “You Can Have it Both Ways, Baby!”

It appears that the folks in Asia find this new stage of the women’s game much to their liking. For next year EMEA (the WTA acronym for Europe, the Middle East and Africa) will host 23 WTA events, and the Americas will host just 14. Asia-Pacific, meanwhile, will have 17.

It seems pretty clear that in the Far East (including Japan), the traditional if fading western linkage between WTA tennis and the women’s movement is barely, if at all, in play anymore. In other words, it’s all about the tennis. 

The rosiest interpretation is that women like Li, Zheng Jie, and Kimiko Date-Krumm have sparked massive interest (and perhaps participation) in tennis because of what they’ve accomplished and how they play. But it could also be that those successful Asian women have succeeded just in turning eastern eyes toward the game, and that the interest in it is more about the show than the shots.

The glitz and glamor associated with WTA tennis shouldn’t be underestimated. Even if you don’t love it, the sex appeal of women’s tennis is strong. Fans seem to thrive on the glitz and glamor associated with female professional athletes, even as those women have become less representative than unique—neither militant sisters nor merely girly-girls, but a breed unto themselves.

Whatever the case, the successful penetration of Asia by the WTA is in and of itself a notable development for women’s sports, and who knows what the repercussions in the long term will be?

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