Uproar as the WTA hits Mexico

Sabalenka and more express frustrations over subpar playing conditions…

Cancun… the resort city of long white beaches, affordable “resorts,” Señor Frog’s and during a certain time of year, every high school senior and university freshman with a fake ID card looking to drink beyond excess. It’s also, of late, the last-minute, predictable choice for a women’s tour in a bind, seeking a suitable stage to host its season-ending tournament, the GNP Seguros WTA Finals.

But “suitable” is by no means satisfactory, and reliable is the adjective more associated with Ford over Ferrari. So far, the players are getting on with their sub-par surroundings on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula — in the group stage, Gauff, Swiatek, Sabelnka and Pegula have so far prevailed — but some aren’t going about it quietly. “I have to say… that I am very disappointed with the WTA and the experience so far at the WTA Finals,” said Aryna Sabalenka, the WTA No. 1, Australian Open champ, U.S. Open finalist and 2022 tour finalist during her first match press conference. “As a player I really feel disrespected by the WTA. I think most of us do. This is not the level of organisation we expect for the Finals.

Sabalenka is mostly referring to the slap-dash show court at the Estadio Paradisus, the stadium at the Paradisus resort, which is the staging ground for the tournament. Days before the event began on Sunday, players have complained about an uneven court surface causing unsure footing and random ball bounces. The campus also sits less than 500 meters from the windy Caribbean Sea on one side and the humid Nichupte Lagoon on the other.

But the Belarusian, known for her outspokenness on social media, clarified the wobbly court — built atop a golf course — was one issue of many, with the overall arching theme being the WTA’s Hail Mary strategy toward the year’s premiere  event. While the men have counted on the abiding Pala Alpitour in Torino for matches and the pristine indoor red clay courts of Club Circolo della Stampa for practice since 2021 — not to mention the majestic piazzas and duomos for photo shoots and side events — the women have shuttled from the stadiums of Singapore and Shenzhen, China, to tennis centers in Guadalajara and country clubs in Fort Worth, Texas since 2018. After months of speculation in 2023 — even that the tour finals could move to Saudi Arabia — the WTA announced in September that Cancun would host, giving organisers weeks to build suitable digs.

“For this challenge I’m facing right now, to kind of like learn how to adapt quickly to the conditions. Thank you for that. But this is not something I expect from such a high-level tournament,” said Sabalenka, who was runner-up to Coco Gauff at the US Open in September. Sabalenka’s first social media posts from Cancun also questioned the number of practice courts allotted (two) and the sole tennis stringer on-site. The underlying sentiment: the sixteen finest players in the world, competing for the season-ending crown, had a facility hardly suitable for an ITF Futures tournament.

Since Sunday, about half of the players, including Swiatek and Rybakina, have joined Sabalenka’s chorus, while others, such as Ons Jabeur, Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, a New Yorker known to crack open a beer and speak her mind at press conferences, have remained mum.

The WTA had only this to say: “We’re pleased to host the WTA Finals in Cancun for the first time. The team has worked diligently on an expedited timeline amid weather challenges to ensure the stadium and court meet our strict performance standards.”

Read between the lines of a 29 October WTA press release, and a fuller picture emerges, however. “… Acceptance and adaptation will be the name of the game at the GNP Seguros WTA Finals Cancun…,” it opened. 

It went on to quote two players known for their range and adaptability. 

“I think the most important thing is just how you respond mentally, accepting it for what it is,” said Coco Gauff. “You’re going to miss some, you’re going to make some. You’re going to win some points because of luck, because of the wind, and you’re also going to lose some.”

“I learned to just adapt to everything,” Jabeur said. “As a tennis player, I always try to adapt and not complain about a lot of things.”

All of this leaves the WTA in another political bind, the players in a guessing game and Sabalenka, as usual, saving face on social media. “I definitely want to show my appreciation for the local tournament organisers, everyone that built the court at the last minute, and everyone that’s working here at the event,” she wrote. “I know it’s not their fault and I want them to know, as well as all the Mexican fans, that I love them and appreciate them. I’m very happy to be in Mexico, I’m just upset with the WTA and this situation.”