The WTA Finals in Fort Worth hosts the top women in tennis, yet almost none of them are household names.
FORT WORTH — I feel compelled, for once, to begin with three answers to the basic question.
Because they are the best players in the world. Because they deserve as much. Because I happen to love tennis.
The question, of course, is why on a Tuesday night when the Cowboys are riding high at 6-2, when TCU fans are checking to see where the Horned Frogs placed in the initial playoff rankings, when Luka is doing amazing things even if his team isn’t, when the Stars are doing just fine and when the Houston Astros are making yet another World Series visit, why on earth am I writing about women’s tennis?
I already supplied your answer.
The WTA Finals, the limited field tournament involving the top eight ranked women on the planet and an event that has been to China, Turkey and Singapore recently but has not been held in the United States since 2005, is at Dickies Arena this week. The round-robin format with each competitor playing at least three matches concludes with the singles final Monday. The best of the best are here, and yet even that brings us to a bit of an issue for the women’s game.
The best women’s players….who are they exactly?
When a true superstar leaves a sport, whether it’s Babe Ruth or Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, it takes time to fill the void. Is there any greater chasm than the one left by Serena Williams, still not fully retired but gone for good, it would appear, from the biggest stage?
The modern women’s game has evolved as the polar opposite of the men’s where Rafa, Roger and Djoker won everything in sight for the last 15 years, creating rivalries and unbelievable matches that will be discussed 50 years from now. As for the women, since Serena won her 23rd and last major at the 2017 Australian Open, 14 different champions have claimed the 22 Grand Slam events during that time.
Of those that won more than once, Japan’s Naomi Osaka (four) seemed poised to take over the game before well-documented issues with social anxiety basically dislodged her career. Then there was Australia’s Ash Barty who won three Grand Slams and promptly announced her retirement on social media at 25. It was the equivalent of Brorn Borg walking away from the game at 26, only without the comparable John McEnroe figure in the process of taking charge.
And so the world’s No. 1 player, Poland’s Iga Swiatek, took the court at Dickies Arena at 5:03 p.m. for her first singles match, receiving scattered applause from about 1,000 people in the stands. The seats filled a bit as the evening went along, although no one would equate this with a major crowd.
In 49 minutes, Swiatek — playing the 8th-ranked player in the world, Daria Kasatkina, not some unranked qualifier — had won the first set and broken serve for a 3-0 lead in the second. The 6-2, 6-2 match was over in a hurry which was expected for someone who is having one of the great women’s seasons in recent years. She has won eight titles including two Grand Slams (French and U.S. Opens) and is the obvious favorite to win here.
But how many people recognize the 21-year-old Pole just yet?
It’s no secret that 18-year-old Coco Gauff has a more commanding presence here. She got a much heartier ovation for her match that began just after 7 p.m. Tuesday, even though she would go on to lose to France’s Caroline Garcia, 6-4, 6-3. Gauff could still reach the semifinals by winning her next two matches.
Having earned the No. 4 seed at such a young age, Gauff is the youngest American to compete in the Finals since Lindsay Davenport in 1994. She takes such achievements in stride as she has done since announcing herself to the world as a 15-year-old at Wimbledon in 2019.
“When it comes to these statistics, it’s cool but it’s not something that amazes me,’’ she said, laughing. “It’s my life so I don’t feel like I’m doing anything special.’’
But she’s not unaware of how she made her arrival and all that has followed her since. Gauff was the youngest player to compete at Wimbledon in the Open Era at 15 years, three months and beat Venus Williams in her opening match in 2019.
“I busted onto the scene in a very big way, and people had a lot of opinions about how that was going to go,’’ she said. “I think just being here shows how I have progressed. Obviously, I want to go further. The WTA Finals is not where I want this chapter to end.’’
Given that she’s 0-4 against Swiatek, this particular chapter may not end with a title. But who can say what lies ahead for the teenager from Delray Beach, Fla., and where the women’s game might find itself when she carries the No. 1 ranking next to her name?