How Disastrous 2014 Wuhan Open Will Affect the WTA

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2014

Maria Sharapova hits a backhand at the Wuhan Open in China.
Maria Sharapova hits a backhand at the Wuhan Open in China.Hong Wu/Getty Images

The 2014 Wuhan Open was supposed to be the sort of coming-out party for the WTA's revved-up Asian swing of the tour. Instead, the tournament got off to a disastrous start. 

In its first year, this tournament offered $2,440,070 in prize money as a premier-level event. With a state-of-art tennis facility, Wuhan was supposed to showcase the commitment Asian cities are making to hosting professional tennis tournaments. 

According to players, people in the host city have been gracious and welcoming. The facilities are top-notch. Yet, circumstances, those out of the hands of tournament organizers, have raised questions about the future of this tournament and the WTA's push to expand in the Asian market. 

On the eve on the tournament, China's most successful tennis player, Li Na, announced her retirement. Li is the reason the WTA came to Wuhan, her hometown.

Maria Sharapova admitted to SI.com that she was unfamiliar with Wuhan. "I think I had to Google the world map to find [Wuhan’s] location...But then I heard that it was Li Na's hometown so it made sense."  

Li Na, who announced her retirement last week, waves to the crowd at the Wuhan Open.
Li Na, who announced her retirement last week, waves to the crowd at the Wuhan Open.Hong Wu/Getty Images
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Li told ESPN how disappointed she was that she could not play in the inaugural Wuhan Open. "After the surgery in July, I tried very hard to recover, hoping I can make it to participate in tennis matches in China especially the Wuhan Tennis Open which is the first ever big tennis match in my hometown."

Soon after Li announced her retirement, former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka withdrew and announced that she was done for the year. To make matters worse, Chinese No. 2 and U.S. Open semifinalist Shuai Peng lost her opening-round match.

In the second round, Serena Williams, who had received a bye, retired in the first set, citing a viral illness. Williams told reporters she "felt dizzy and nauseous in the first set and unfortunately couldn't continue."

Jelena Jankovic retired with a bad back. Ana Ivanovic retired with a thigh injury. Sharapova was upset by a qualifier. 

Two other players contracted viral illnesses, including No. 14 Lucie Safarova. Garbine Muguruza, who defeated No. 2 Simona Halep in the second round, withdrew before her third-round match due to gastroenteritis.

Apparently, something, perhaps Wuhan's high humidity, was taking its toll on players. 

lucie safarova @luciesafarova

Was nice to visit Wuhan! Unfortunately I struggle with viral illness for few days and had to withdraw… http://t.co/HdhhNUnOrs

Wuhan replaces Tokyo as a premier-level event. The year-end championships will be played in Singapore. All of a sudden, top players are being asked to spend nearly two months in Asia after a summer in North America. Some players have voiced concern about the grueling schedule. 

Prior to her match, Williams spoke to reporters about the challenges that arise with the new Asian swing. "I'm still trying to figure it out between this week and next week and then two open weeks and then the Championships. So it's going to be a little tricky, but I'm going to try to figure it out."

Meanwhile, players are trying to get used to the extended stay in Asia. China's ban on Twitter and Facebook has not been easy for social media-savvy players. 

Players also seemed to struggle with translations during press conferences. Some things certainly have gotten lost. The following exchange came from the transcript of a Wuhan Open press conference with Alize Cornet.  

Q.  (Through translation.)  I know you come from a family background, very well‑off family.  So what is your driving force for playing so many tournaments?
ALIZE CORNET:  If it's—what is the question, if it's tough to be away from home? 

Q.  (Through translation.)  You come from a very rich family. 
ALIZE CORNET:  A very what? 

Q.  (Through translation.)  Very well off. 
ALIZE CORNET:  Well off?  What does it mean? 
ALIZE CORNET:  Rich, me?  No, this is not a good person (smiling). 
I am not going to say my family is poor, but I'm not coming from a rich family.  I'm coming from a very moderate family.  And I don't get the question, but it's fine (smiling). 

According to SI.com, the Wuhan Sport Development and Investment Company has a 15-year contract to run the tournament. This means at least that the organization is committed for the long haul. 

Any tournament in its first year will have issues to iron out. But the Wuhan mishaps are about more than tournament organizing. By most accounts, the tournament is well organized. However, the difficulties experienced by players must be monitored. 

How many top-tier players will want to risk burnout with no Grand Slam left on the calendar? How will these extra tournaments influence the race to Singapore?

Perhaps the WTA will consider tweaking the schedule to make the Asian swing more player friendly. As it stands, the semifinals are set. The 2014 Wuhan Open will come to a close this weekend. Questions about its future will linger.  

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