Which tournaments mean the most to players?

Published by Matt Trollope

Victories to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami 2006 (left), Sam Stosur in Charleston 2010 (centre) and Lleyton Hewitt at Queen's in 2006 (right) sees these events hold a special place in their respective hearts.
Outside of the majors, some events are more significant to players than others. If it’s not all about ranking points and prize money, then what else makes tournaments meaningful and prestigious?

In 2013, Serena Williams played more than she ever had in a single season, finishing with nearly 80 match wins and 11 titles. By the time the WTA Finals rolled around, she revealed how exhausted she was.

In 2014, after winning the US Open and being asked about her relationship status, she offered: “There’s no time for love. I’ve got to go to Wuhan”, before dragging herself off to China for another swag of events.

In 2015, despite having qualified for the finals in Singapore and with the China Open a mandatory tournament, she skipped the Asian swing completely.

Williams is not the only player bemoaning these late-season events. Over the years several have expressed their displeasure about being forced to compete outside in Beijing in such polluted air. Agnieszka Radwanska said she wished the tennis season could be nine months long – although she didn’t directly call for the scrapping of the Asian circuit, a nine-month season would invariably start with the Australian summer of events in January and end with the US Open in September.

Last year, Wuhan and Beijing – among the most prestigious WTA tournaments by nature of the ranking points and prize money on offer – were plagued with player absences. Wrote Nina Pantic for tennis.com: “The number of retirements and withdrawals post-US Open are impossible to ignore … Wuhan stacked up five retirements and one withdrawal. The following week, Beijing had six players retire.”

And we’re talking big names here – Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka, arguably the three highest-profile female players, failed to appear in Beijing at all.

The Asian swing was not the only portion of the season affected by this phenomenon. In February, high-profile absences were an issue in Doha and even more so in Dubai, where top three stars Williams, Angelique Kerber and Radwanska, plus crowd favourite Caroline Wozniacki, all withdrew.

“It was not easy, but at the end of the day it’s also a serious issue for the WTA because the players will always do what is good for them,” infuriated Dubai tournament director Salah Tahlak told the Khaleej Times. “I spoke to the WTA president as well and they were not happy with the withdrawals at the last minute.”

While a less prevalent issue on the ATP World Tour, top players have frequently bypassed the compulsory Paris Masters late in the season in a bid to be fresher for the subsequent World Tour Finals in London.

The players in recent years seem to be voting with their feet. These events in China and the Middle East may bear significant points and prize money and have mandatory participation requirements, but, as the raft of withdrawals suggest, they don’t mean that much to the players.

The question is, outside of the Grand Slams – the four pillars of the game which all players grow up dreaming of playing at and winning – which tournaments are significant to them? If millions of dollars and thousands of ranking points are not incentive enough, where would the players rather be playing?

For Lleyton Hewitt, history is a compelling factor.

The retired Aussie, now captain of Australia’s Davis Cup team, was a four-time winner at London’s Queen’s Club, long regarded as the most prestigious grasscourt title behind Wimbledon. It always draws a strong field, somewhat at odds with its long-time designation as an ATP 250 event (it was elevated to 500 status last year).

“It was a smaller tournament but you could feel the history and tradition of playing there,” Hewitt told tennismash. “Queen’s was (important) purely because it was on grass, and you don’t get the opportunity to play on grass that often. Plus I think I was fortunate to play well there and win it quite a few times.

“The honour board at Queen’s – you can just see how many great players have held up that great trophy there as well. So that’s probably why it meant a little bit more than some of the other tournaments for me.”

In the late 1980s, those aforementioned events in China and the Middle East did not exist. Australian Tennis Magazine in February 1988 ran a review of the 1987 season and considered the ‘major tournaments’ of the day to be the four Grand Slams, the Lipton Championships (Miami), the Italian Open (Rome), the women’s Virginia Slims Championships (today’s WTA Finals), and the men’s Grand Prix Masters (now the ATP World Tour Finals) and WCT Finals.

It might help explain why Svetlana Kuznetsova cherishes her Miami title in 2006 more than any other outside of her major victories in New York and Paris. Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova were among her scalps in a fabulous Floridian fortnight, at a tournament which for decades has contended for the unofficial title of ‘fifth Grand Slam’.

Miami is these days classified as mandatory for men and women whose rankings qualify them for the field. But Kuznetsova said that this did not influence her decision to play certain events – instead, it was about being selective with her schedule in her twilight years on tour to ensure she remained motivated to compete.

It’s a similar story for fellow veteran Sam Stosur. “To be honest, I’ve never gone necessarily anywhere because there’s bigger money or points or anything like that,” Stosur told tennismash.

“Certain tournaments carry more weight and there’s more points and money involved which makes them bigger and that’s why they’re ‘better’ tournaments. I get that. But I’ll go somewhere because it fits my schedule the best.”

Stosur, a 16-year stalwart of the tour, is a member of the WTA Player Council. Over the years the Australian has learned what she likes about certain tournaments more than others and which cities and facilities typically do a great job staging a tennis event.

“Some of the main things as a player that are important are decent food at the courts. It doesn’t always happen. Also, good transport, good practice facilities. And if there’s a really good laundry service, I’m happy. So it all seems very simple, but not all places can get that right, which then just makes things a little bit harder for the week,” she said.

“Now I don’t want to be going to places necessarily if I don’t enjoy them or I don’t like the city or whatever. I think if you’re somewhere you want to be and enjoy, you’re going to play better anyway.”

Stosur has enjoyed the greatest portion of her professional success on clay; claycourt events like Stuttgart and Charleston – “I’d play there all year if I could,” she laughed – are some of her favourite stops on tour.

Hewitt agreed a tournament’s surface could influence how meaningful the event is to certain players and whether they would enjoy playing it. “My schedule was always around Grand Slams and Davis Cup, and then I would work it backwards to be peaking at those events, and I would try and play how many tournaments I felt (necessary) to get the matches I needed to be match-hardened and match-ready,” he explained.

As his career progressed and his body became increasingly injury-prone, Hewitt competed more sparingly. In his final complete year on tour, in 2015, the Australian played a limited schedule focusing on his most cherished events. He played just 10 tournaments, skipping Roland Garros and the claycourt season entirely yet contesting the other three majors, some tune-up events for each, and a Davis Cup tie. He also accepted last-minute entries into Houston and Miami, near his base in the Bahamas.

“One of my favourites was always Indian Wells – I think it’s just a really well-run tournament. Lots of practice facilities for the players as well and a fantastic set up which is very similar to playing at a Grand Slam, in terms of the number of courts they have and big stadiums as well. So (that and Queen’s) were probably a couple of my favourite smaller tournaments,” he said.

“For me I always loved playing in Australia, as much as possible. Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, they were always some of my favourites, and obviously the Hopman Cup.”

We put it to Stosur – if she was playing her last season on tour like Hewitt and determined her schedule exactly how she wanted, how would it look?

“Obviously I’d play in Australia. Then Indian Wells, Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid, Rome, the French, Wimby, probably Toronto and Cincinnati, the US (Open) obviously. And then I’d play in Japan, and maybe that’d be about it,” she said.

“(Outside of the majors) Indian Wells I think would be a pretty nice one to have as winner next to your name. Look, I’ve only won eight tournaments, so any of them will do me (laughter).”

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