In a season full of foiled plans and economic peril, the WTA Tour suffered its biggest blow on Thursday when it was forced to cancel its remaining tournaments in 2020 in China, including its lucrative tour championships: the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
The cancellations, announced by the WTA, came two weeks after a Chinese government sports agency recommended that the country call off most international sporting events for the remainder of the year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, had expressed hope that China’s government and its tennis officials would allow the tournaments to proceed, just as it was allowing certain winter sports test events to go on ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Negotiations proved unsuccessful, however, and the women’s tour will now have to cancel all seven events scheduled in October and November in China, which has rapidly become one the tour’s major markets and a key source of revenue.
“Obviously they’ve done a great job mitigating it,” Simon said of China and the coronavirus in an interview on Thursday. “The numbers are very much under control and if you look around the world and to areas where it’s really spiking and not being as well controlled I think the Chinese are doing everything they can to protect that environment. One of the best ways to protect it is to keep everything locked down.”
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The WTA Finals provided a record $14 million in prize money in its first year in Shenzhen in 2019 with backing from its primary sponsor Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetics company. In total, the WTA’s China swing in 2019 offered about $30 million in prize money.
“All the leagues and all the sporting events right now are struggling,” Simon said. “This has hurt everybody significantly. Whatever people have in reserves are going to get burned up, no question. But we are fortunate that we’re in a position that we can manage it. It’s not going to be easy, not easy for anybody, but we’ll get through it. We planned for the worst and so far we haven’t hit total worst. So we’ll look at this with the glass maybe not half full but a quarter full.”
The men’s tennis tour also will be hurt by the cancellation of the China Open in Beijing, the Chengdu Open, the Zhuhai Championships and the Rolex Shanghai Masters, a top-tier ATP event. Two golf events in Shanghai will be canceled: an L.P.G.A. tournament and the men’s HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championships event. The Shanghai Grand Prix, a Formula One race that was postponed in April, is now not expected to happen in 2020.
But the women’s tennis tour is the international sports organization that will be affected most deeply by China’s decision. The WTA depends on the finals, which bring together the season’s top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams, for a major chunk of its annual revenue. According to Simon, it has no cancellation insurance that would apply in a pandemic.
The WTA has a 10-year deal with Shenzhen, and the city is building a new 12,000-seat stadium to host the finals and other sporting events. Simon has said Shenzhen’s total investment in tennis infrastructure and the WTA Tour would likely amount to more than $1 billion.He said he did not expect the tour would rethink its focus on China. “We know there’s still a very strong commitment to us there,” he said. ”It’s just an unfortunate situation. We are disappointed in the decision but respect it.”
Though there have been plenty of shifts in the tennis calendar this year, with the French Open moving its starting date from May to September and Wimbledon being canceled, Simon said it was “very improbable” that the tour could move the 2020 finals to another country. He said the tour might add some events in the now-empty late season but that finding financing would be challenging. There is still a chance that the Asian tournaments in Seoul, South Korea, in early October and Tokyo in early November could be maintained, and Simon said they might be moved closer together to create a much smaller Asian swing.
The other six Chinese tournaments to be canceled by the WTA are the China Open in Beijing, the Wuhan Open, the Jiangxi Open in Nanchang, the Zhengzhou Open, the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai and the Guanghzhou Open.
The China Open is a premier mandatory event, the highest category of tournament on the regular WTA Tour (the four Grand Slam events operate independently). Three of the four premier mandatory events have been canceled in 2020 with only the Mutua Madrid Open, rescheduled for September, still a possibility. For now, the WTA Tour is set to resume on Aug. 3 after a five-month hiatus with a clay-court event in Palermo, Italy, followed by tournaments in Prague and Lexington, Ky.
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Simon said he viewed those three events as a trial run for the rest of the tour as the virus continues to spread, especially in the United States. “I mean you have to expect there will be a positive case,” he said. “I think it’s how you manage it. You are going to have some, but you have to see if it’s something we’re able to control due to the uniqueness of how we have to operate.”
The WTA, which already has cut pay for its top employees during the pandemic and provided some financial relief to players, likely will need to dig into its reserves, which were estimated to be about half of the ATP’s before the pandemic. Under economic pressure, the WTA and ATP have had serious discussions about merging some commercial rights and much more tentative talks about a future merger.
The WTA Tour had total prize money of $179 million in 2019, including the four Grand Slam tournaments. That is up from $86 million in 2009. But this year will mark a big step backward with the tour shut down since March and with the cancellation of the Fed Cup team event and of Wimbledon, which did make some compensatory payouts this month to players who would have competed in the tournament. The United States Open, scheduled for Aug. 31 to Sept. 13 in New York, is still not certain to go ahead largely because of questions about quarantine requirements for players who would be heading back to Europe afterward.
Losing the WTA Finals this year also could cost the WTA its 2020 rights fee, which has not been disclosed but which Simon has said is significantly more than the approximately $14 million it received annually from the finals’ previous host city of Singapore.
“Women’s tennis can continue to be No. 1 in women’s sports. It just has to get through this pandemic,” said Chris Evert, the former No. 1 who spoke to the WTA players during a conference call earlier this month, urging them to embrace every opportunity to play in this challenging year. “Am I worried? No, but I know they will go through struggles for sure financially.”