If you’ve wondered what the tennis landscape might look like when 34-year-old Serena Williams finally decides to call it quits, the WTA finals in Singapore might provide an excellent sneak preview.
The field is set now, the elite eight led by No. 2-ranked Simona Halep, who has yet to win her first Grand Slam singles title. In fact, the WTA finals almost coalesced without a single 2015 Grand Slam singles champion in the field.
Williams won three of the four majors in 2015; Flavia Pennetta won the fourth, the US Open. Yet Pennetta didn’t earn a berth in Singapore until Wednesday in Moscow in this final week of qualification. The field does contain two tested Grand Slam event winners, though: third-seeded Maria Sharapova and No. 4 Petra Kvitova.
The WTA final might be days distant, but something we can call “the Williams effect” kicked in weeks ago — the moment the website of the China Open announced that she was pulling out of the upcoming Asian tournaments and stowing her rackets for the year. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what impact that announcement had on the ensuing events in tennis. The variable are simply too numerous. But here’s something to consider.
With Williams out of the picture, Garbine Muguruza stepped in to complete an impressive resurgence with a win in the China Open. Muguruza seemed to lose her bearings after her breakthrough run to the Wimbledon final — where the 22-year-old was beaten by Williams, coincidentally — but here she is, seeded No. 2 in the WTA finals and touted as the probable leader of a transitional generation.
That fits a narrative the WTA likes. When Serena calls it a career, a new generation will take over. But is that a realistic evaluation of the situation on the ground?
Think about this: The week after the China Open, Agnieszka Radwanska, who lost the 2002 Wimbledon final to Williams, won in Tianjin. Combined with her semifinal appearance at the China Open, the title was enough to vault Radwanska up and into a No. 5 slot in Singapore.
Given how fitfully Radwanska has played for so much of this year, the absence of Williams clearly provided her with a motivational boost.