SmashDebate: should the year-end finals use wildcards?

Published by Vivienne Christie & Matt Trollope

Sloane Stephens will not feature in the eight-player field at Singapore's WTA Finals, despite winning the US Open; Getty Images
With only two of the season’s four major champions appearing in Singapore, we debate whether the WTA should have enacted its wildcard rule to allow Sloane Stephens to play.

The prestigious season-ending WTA Championships will feature only two of the four women who claimed Grand Slam titles in 2017 – Garbine Muguruza, who followed her Wimbledon triumph with a world No.1 debut, and surprise French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.

Australian Open winner Serena Williams couldn’t participate even if she wanted to because of the recent birth of her first child. However, US Open champ Sloane Stephens is kicking around, but she won’t feature in Singapore.

WTA FINALS: Ostapenko qualifies, no wildcard for Stephens

She could be there. Thanks to its rulebook, the WTA has the option of choosing an eighth player, “at its sole discretion and taking into account extraordinary circumstances”, to feature at its flagship event.

But the women’s governing body has said that it won’t seek to use this option.

Is that the right thing to do? Vivienne Christie and Matt Trollope thrash out their views on this in our latest SmashDebate.

Christie

Ask practically any player, and they’d happily trade multiple victories at lower-level events for one Grand Slam title. These career-defining victories transform a player from good to great. And surely these superstar champions are most appealing to audiences?

So I’m baffled by the realisation that Sloane Stephens won’t feature at the WTA Finals in Singapore. Her US Open triumph was among the most stunning victories of the season – perhaps even the best in recent memory.

The WTA had the option to issue a discretionary wildcard but chose not to enact it. So rather than a US Open champion, the final woman in the prestigious eight-woman field will most likely be Johanna Konta, or possibly Caroline Garcia.

Granted, those players have worked hard for that position. But let’s consider the X-factor – and status – of the thoroughly deserving Stephens.

In my view, a Grand Slam champion should be automatically awarded entry into the end-of-year Championships.

Trollope

I agree, Viv, that Stephens’ X-factor will be missed in Singapore. But I must add that her X-factor has been missing for the majority of the season.

The American has played just seven events this year as she makes her way back from a foot injury. Her US Open triumph came in just her fifth tournament back. Extraordinary! But she hasn’t won a set since. And it’s for this reason that she’s perhaps not as deserving of a place as the next player in line to qualify – Johanna Konta.

CHINA OPEN: Kvitova powers past Wozniacki

The Brit has enjoyed a stunning – and consistent – season during which she’s been in the conversation almost all of the time. You mentioned that players would happily trade their lower-level titles for a Grand Slam win? That’s exactly right. But Konta hasn’t just won at the lower level. She’s won big – such as when she stormed to the Miami title. She also won the premier-level Sydney crown. Reached the semis at Wimbledon. The quarters of the Australian Open.

Her reward should be a place in the Singapore field; I think it would be rather unceremonious of the WTA to dump her in favour of a player who literally bobbed up for a few weeks and happened to red-line in New York.

If Sloane can reproduce her US Open exploits on a more consistent basis next year, then she’ll be a lock for Singapore. But for now, it should be JoKo.

Over to you …

Christie

Oh hey Matt. Sorry for the slow reply. You caught me snoozing.

A year or so from now, will anybody remember – or care – that JoKo won Miami? Or even that she was a semifinalist at Wimbledon? The American’s stunning victory at her home Grand Slam, on the other hand, is already part of tennis folklore.

You talk of Sloane struggling to replicate her US Open run – since Wimbledon, Konta has managed just one quarterfinal appearance. And at the US Open, she lost first round to the 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic!

But let’s not talk about what players haven’t done. I truly don’t want to disrespect JoKo. My argument is about rewarding a special (and typically elusive) major title.

I still say that when it comes to such an elite event as the WTA Finals, fans want their Grand Slam champion.

Trollope

Well, wake up Viv.

You do make a good point re Miami. Maybe I’m still living in the days of the Lipton where that tournament was a huge deal. Even now though, with its 96-player, two-week format and elite status, I’d still argue it’s a feather in JoKo’s cap.

It’s no US Open, I agree. But remember when Gaston Gaudio was the Roland Garros champion in 2004 and was allowed to compete – despite finishing 10th in the Race – in that year’s ATP Tennis Masters Cup in Houston? That was UGLY. He lost all three of his round-robin matches in straight sets. You’d imagine Andre Agassi or David Nalbandian, who were 8th and 9th in the Race, would have fared better.

With Stephens’ form as it is, she could well be Gaudio 2.0. Yes, she’d be a major champion in the field, but I’m not sure it’s a great thing for her, the tournament and the fans if she was fronting up and getting thrashed in all her matches. Sure, Konta is limping to the line herself, but she would arrive with the knowledge (and hopefully the resulting confidence) of a solid season of consistently good performances.

What say you?

Christie

OK, sorry Matt. Onto my third long black for today, so sufficiently awake now.

I’m not disputing that JoKo claimed a fabulous win in Miami. But it’s still not a Grand Slam title, which is the whole point of this argument.

FEATURE: a changing women’s game

Of course, Sloane could be Gaudio 2.0 – but on recent form, I can’t see Konta faring much better. And “solid season” (yawn) still pales alongside “major champion”.

Grand Slam titles are the ones we celebrate. I’ll say it again: they transform a “consistently good” player (your words on Konta) into a superstar. A Grand Slam champion is an obvious omission at the end-of-year Championships.

Trollope

I wonder what would have happened had Stephens won Wuhan or gone deep in Beijing?

Perhaps that’s when the WTA would have invoked the “extraordinary circumstances” clause and granted a berth to a player who’d not only won a major title, but kept up her form on the regular tour after her breakthrough.

Yet as it stands, Sloane has failed miserably there. And I think that’s where she can’t expect a position at the season-ender. After all, it’s in the WTA’s interest to have its biggest stars performing well week to week to promote its tour, yet all Sloane really did in 2017 was emerge to win a tournament that is run by the ITF, a different governing body.

Konta also has enough of a presence and profile – especially as a player representing a huge market like Britain with a Wimbledon semifinal under her belt – to hold her own in the star stakes in Singapore.

Share this: 
  • Most popular articles

8 February 2016

Mastering the mental game of tennis

Negative thoughts and self-doubt can sometimes prove to be tougher opponents than the pers... More

9 January 2018

ATP: the biggest strength and weakness of every top 10 playe...

As the first Grand Slam of the season fast approaches, top-10 players are leading the char... More

7 December 2017

Who’s who in Novak’s team?

After calling time on his 2017 season with an elbow injury in July, Novak Djokovic is look... More

21 February 2018

Harrison: “I don’t see a way in which Donald and...

Ryan Harrison has described his relationship with Donald Young as almost irreparable after... More