The WTA Finals Settle Down in China

After the last five years in Singapore, and Istanbul before that, the WTA Finals have moved to Shenzhen, China, and plan to stay there for at least 10 years.

That’s quite a change from 40 years ago, when the Women’s Tennis Association finals featured not one, but two, professional tours in 1979.

Avon Championship Tennis was contested from Jan. 1 to March 25 and featured 12 tournaments in the United States, in venues that included Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The finals were played at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

Once the ’79 winter circuit had ended, players, like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong and Billie Jean King, moved on to the Colgate Series Championships that included tournaments at the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open. (The Australian Open was played in late December 1978.) None were contested in China. The finals were held at the Capital Center in Landover, Md.

That same year, Shenzhen was officially named a city, a move that transformed the country town to the financial and technologically savvy metropolis that this week is hosting the year-end Shiseido WTA Finals.

This year’s tournament is the culmination of a circuit that now features 56 tournaments worldwide. Shenzhen outbid Singapore; St. Petersburg, Russia; Manchester, England; and Prague for the right to host the event, which will take place at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center until a new stadium is completed downtown in 2021. The United States, which hosted the first WTA Finals in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1972 and eventually for 24 years at Madison Square Garden, did not try to lure the tournament back, said Micky Lawler, the WTA president.

“Shenzhen has quickly become an important city globally,” said Lawler, who brokered the financial deal. “Their investment in infrastructure and robust human population, which numbers some 22 million people, make it the largest urban community and a huge market for us. They have allowed us to push the boundaries.”

In 1979, there were no Chinese players on the WTA Tour. In 1982, Hu Na created a global incident when she traveled with a Chinese delegation to Santa Clara, Calif., for the Federation Cup and sought asylum. It was about seven years after Navratilova had defected to the United States from Czechoslovakia.

Now, because in large part to Li Na, the International Tennis Hall of Fame player who became the first Chinese to win a Grand Slam tournament when she took the French Open in 2011, there are now 10 Chinese women ranked in the world’s top 200. They are led by No. 29 Wang Qiang. That is compared with five in the top 200 10 years ago.

There are no Chinese women in the singles field at the WTA Finals, but two are entered in doubles. Xu Yifan will play with Gabriela Dabrowski of Canada and Zhang Shuai will partner with Samantha Stosur of Australia.

As optimistic as the players and tour officials are about the move to Shenzhen, the elephant in the arena is the venue’s proximity to Hong Kong and the unrest there. Shenzhen is less than 20 miles from Hong Kong.

In August, photos showed the parking lot of Shenzhen Bay Sports Center filled with military vehicles. A WTA tournament in Hong Kong scheduled for this month was postponed.

So far, unlike the trouble the N.B.A. is having with China after recent comments about the Hong Kong protests by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, the WTA and its players have steered clear of commenting on Hong Kong.

“We’ve had nothing but a great relationship with China,” said Lawler, adding that security would be tight for the tournament. “They have been very good partners. The reason we love working in sports is because it’s not supposed to touch anything but positive human connections.”

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