With the field consisting of the year’s best players and its round-robin format that pits one against top-flight competition every match out, the WTA Finals can be a difficult task for any player to navigate, especially one making their debut at the year-end event.
This season, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and Kremlin Cup titlist Belinda Bencic will be contesting the tournament for the first time. And despite all the challenges the tournament offers, they can look at the results of multiple participants who’ve made a statement at the WTA Finals in their initial attempt. Here’s a look at several of them: from current and future Hall of Famers to tour veterans.
Teenage prodigies have long made their mark in the women’s professional game, and in 1996, Hingis showed that she was going to be the latest to do so. Winning two singles titles during the year, the 16-year-old booked a spot among the seeds in the 16-player draw of the final event of the season. Dropping only one set on her way to the final, the Swiss teen faced world No. 1 Steffi Graf for the title. In the best-of-five-set affair, Hingis lost a roller-coaster match 6-0 in the decider to the German.
Closing out the 2003 season, the teenager from Russia won the first two singles titles of her career, which set the stage for a follow-up campaign to remember. Shortly after turning 17, Sharapova dominated on grass in 2004, winning her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon over Serena Williams. In the fall, she picked up two more tournament victories in Asia and found herself at the year-end championships for the first time. Seeded sixth, she won the tournament, again surprising the more experienced Williams in the final.
Seeded eighth going into Wimbledon in 2011, Kvitova—a semifinalist at the tournament the year prior—would go on to win the title, defeating 2004 champion Sharapova for the top prize. Like Sharapova then, the Czech’s win would also propel her into the field at the WTA Finals for the first time. Going undefeated in round-robin play without the loss of a set, she was pushed to the distance in the semifinals by the US Open winner Samantha Stosur, then topped Victoria Azarenka in three sets for her second major title of the season.
A strong showing during the fall can make all the difference on getting into the elite tournament at the end of the year, a situation Cibulkova found herself in in 2016. After capturing the title in Linz, Austria, to clinch a berth at the WTA Finals, the seventh seed advanced to the semifinals at the season finale despite losing two matches in the round-robin portion of play. In the last four, she topped Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets to advance to the biggest final of her career. There, the Slovakian defeated Angelique Kerber—whom she had lost to in her opening match—in straight sets to clinch the title and a year-end No. 5 world ranking.