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The Rally: Peng Shuai latest; tennis’ future with China; a boisterous WTA Finals; a women’s season with an entertaining surprise around every corner
We often hear that tennis either needs a big star or a high-profile rivalry to make things interesting, but 2021 may have proven those theories wrong.
Published Nov 18, 2021
Tennis Channel Live: Jon Wertheim and Jim Courier discuss the latest on Peng Shuai.
A remarkable WTA year has just wrapped up—plot twists both inside and outside the lines that have triggered profound implications for the sport’s future. We will be sorting out the 2021 tennis year for a long time to come.
First, let’s explore Peng Shuai and her recent allegations. It was good—and downright necessary—for the WTA to speak out. Said tour chairman and CEO Steve Simon in a November 14 statement demanding an investigation, “We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”
A major chilling dimension to this is that Peng has not recently been heard from. In a November 14 New York Times article, Simon said that he believes she’s safe, but then again, he has yet to hear from her—nor has anyone else associated with the WTA.
In the same story, Simon also addressed the WTA’s business relationship with China. “If at the end of the day,” said Simon, “we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to.”
So we shall see what’s to come. There are so many questions that are likely to trigger ambiguous answers—and more questions. Will there be an investigation? If so, how will it occur? Even based on what’s happened to date, how does the WTA regard its business relationship with China—loads of tournaments, including its season-ending championships? Moving forward, as more is discovered, might the WTA indeed be prepared to withdraw from China? And what will the implications of that be?
But most importantly of all, what has happened to Peng Shuai? As Simon said in the statement, “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”
On Wednesday, a Chinese state-affiliated media organization tweeted a message, allegedly from Peng Shuai, saying that she was fine. The veracity of this message was strongly questioned by many, including Steve Simon.
During the Cold War, there was frequent tension surrounding Eastern European players and their oppressive leaders, who sought to control everything from travel schedules to prize money. Just ask Martina Navratilova, who during the 1975 US Open sought asylum in the United States.
But for a player to speak out and then subsequently not be heard from is exceptionally jarring.
It was great to see players like Naomi Osaka, as well as the ATP, weigh in on this as well. Said ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi in a statement, “we stand in full support of WTA’s call for a full, fair and transparent investigation into allegations of sexual assault carried out against Peng Shuai.”
This indeed is a major chance for both tours to work together. I’ll also be curious to see what’s to come from the fledgling player’s union, the PTPA.
Steve, what are your thoughts on the Peng Shuai situation? And what else has struck you as notable from the WTA this year?
You hit all the essential points on the Peng Shuai story, which gets more ominous by the day. Like you said, it was heartening to see Simon take a firm stand on investigating her allegations, and to see men and woman players unified in their support and concern for her well-being.
I wrote a piece earlier this year about the 10th anniversary of Li Na’s 2011 Roland Garros title, which ushered China into the global tennis mix. If the Peng Shuai situation leads to China being ushered out of the global tennis mix, so be it. I like that Simon was willing to put the WTA’s business interests in China into play. It will be interesting to see what the rest of the sport does, including top players other than Osaka, and the Australian Open, which has billed itself as the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific.
As a fan living and watching in the U.S., I enjoyed the post-US Open section of this year’s schedule—which was largely moved to the States because of China’s continued Covid restrictions—more than I do when the tour heads off to Asia and basically disappears from view here. There are many millions of dollars at stake for the sport in China, but if you can’t take a stand on Peng Shuai’s life, you can’t take a stand on anything.
Which brings me, a little more happily, to Guadalajara and the WTA Finals, which were originally scheduled to be held in Shenzhen. The money in Mexico wasn’t as good, but the spirit was. The crowds were big and boisterous, it was nice to see the Finals played in an outdoor atmosphere, and the women responded to the energy. Especially the champions, the ever-intense Garbiñe Muguruza and her equally intense (and nervous) coach and friend Conchita Martinez—Conchita Cam should be a regular TV feature whenever Muguruza plays. Plus, on a selfish note, those of us on the east coast got to see matches in prime time. Let’s make this a regular thing in Guadalajara, shall we?
I think the Finals was also a good representation of the WTA season as a whole. It was a year when top players came through at big events—Naomi Osaka in Australia, Ash Barty at Wimbledon, and now Muguruza in Guadalajara. But it was also a year when new faces emerged and a post-Serena Williams future took shape. Barbora Krejcikova won Roland Garros; Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez played for the US Open title; Aryna Sabalenka ascended to No. 2; Maria Sakkari, Anett Kontaveit and Paula Badosa made the season-ending championships for the first time; Ons Jabeur became the first Arab player to crack the Top 10.
We often hear that tennis either needs a big star or a high-profile rivalry to make things interesting, but I think 2021 proves those theories wrong. We had neither of those things on the women’s side for most of the season; what we did have was an entertaining and surprising mix of players who kept us watching and guessing for 11 months. That’s more than enough.
What did you think of the WTA Finals and the 2021 WTA season, Joel?
It has been a long 2021 tennis year. I give tons of credit to the players and those who run the WTA and ATP tours for being able to compete and conduct so many tournaments in the middle of a global pandemic. Protocols in various countries, bubbles, frequent testing and international travel add up to a very stressful life.
Zeroing in on the WTA Finals, it struck that me that the players needed a few days to adjust to the altitude. Playing tennis in conditions north of 5,000 feet is not easy. Oddly enough, recreational players can benefit in this environment because their balls, often hit short, will get more depth (though if you’re not that fit, breathing can become an issue).
But for the pros, so skilled at hitting one shot after another six inches inside the baseline, executing a workable mixture of depth, pace and spin can be a challenge. Once they figured that out, though, there were many matches I found fun to watch, most notably a pair of three-setters played by Sabalenka—a win over Iga Swiatek and a loss to Sakkari.
There were also other engaging stories. The rocket-like ascent of Kontaveit was a compelling autumn plotline and I’ll be intrigued to see how it continues in 2022. It was great to see Muguruza make her back up the ranks. Just two years ago, she’d sunk down to No. 36; she’s now No. 3. And as you mentioned, it was refreshing to see tennis outdoors, in the sunshine, in November.
Regarding the WTA year overall, I was excited to see so many different playing styles succeed. Just start with the four Grand Slam winners. Australian Open winner Osaka wins with power.Krejcikova expanded her doubles skills to excel in singles and win Roland Garros. Barty’s Wimbledon run summoned up the elegance of Evonne Goolagong. At the US Open, Raducanu took the ball on the rise and the world by surprise.
So, amid these four and many others, the WTA is in a period of rich competition and stylistic diversity—of speed, spin, touch and, as I wrote several months ago, vastly improved serves. Call the latter the legacy of Serena Williams’ unsurpassed delivery.
Steve, what WTA players are you most interested in as 2022 nears?
Looking at the rankings, a few names stand out for 2022 for me.
First is Karolina Pliskova. When she’s into it and clicking, she may have the easiest and smoothest power of any player on either tour. And the most easygoing personality, too. In the past, of course, she has been too easygoing a lot of the time, too accepting of defeats. Whenever she has a good result, I wonder: Will this make her raise her standards for herself, play up to her potential, and do what it takes to finally win a major? That happened again last year when she made the Wimbledon final, and came up one set short. I thought that near-taste of glory would motivate her, and I still think it might. So hopefully we’ll more of Kaja in the matches that matter next year.
Badosa is next on my list. How lucky to be a Spanish tennis fan: Just when you need an injection of youthful star power, along come 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz on the men’s side and Badosa, 24, on the women’s. I like Badosa’s aggressive-but-not-reckless game, her patience and grit, and her story. It hasn’t always been easy for her mentally, but she’s showing there’s a way to make strides in that department.
Then there’s Muguruza. There’s something about the way she tries to keep her emotions under control between points, and the way her eyes get wide while she waits to return serve, that makes it so clear how much she wants to win. Everyone wants to win, of course, but Muguruza makes it more plain than most, and that often makes me root for her. As I wrote above, I also like watching Conchita at court side, nervously hunched forward and willing Muguruza on. She’s her coach, but she also comes across as a friend and big sister. I hope to see both of them in more winning situations in 2022.
Finally, I can’t forget Fernandez. The on-the-rise strokes, the daring net play, the unflagging positivity, the connection with the crowds. She had it all in New York. Let’s see if she can make the same magic happen when the tours resume in Australia.