The 2022 WTA Finals kick off on Monday in Fort Worth, Texas, where the top eight women will battle it out for one last time this season.
Back in the US for the first time since 2005, the season-ending championships will take place at the impressive Dickies Arena from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7.
World No. 1 Iga Swiatek headlines the field that includes Ons Jabeur, Jessica Pegula, Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari, Caroline Garcia, Aryna Sabalenka and Daria Kasatkina.
Here’s a look at the main talking points heading into the WTA’s season finale.
Historic debut for Jabeur
One of four WTA Finals debutantes in the singles draw in Fort Worth, Tunisian Ons Jabeur will write yet another chapter to her name in the history books as she becomes the first Arab or North African player to qualify for the season-closing championships.
The 28-year-old fell just short of making it to the WTA Finals last year, but a strong 2022 campaign that saw her win a maiden WTA 1000 crown in Madrid and reach two Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open helped her secure her place in this prestigious competition.
“It just proves that this year was amazing. Just being part of the eight players that qualified here is something that I always wanted. I started wanting it two years ago, but it happened this year. Definitely proves I belong with the best players in the world,” Jabeur told reporters in Fort Worth on Saturday.
Seeded No. 2, Jabeur landed in the Nancy Richey Group alongside Pegula, Sabalenka and Sakkari. She owns a combined 6-5 win-loss record against her group rivals and arrives at the tournament feeling fresh, having not played a match since her quarter-final exit in Monastir over three weeks ago.
She commences her WTA Finals campaign against Belarusian No. 7 seed Sabalenka on Monday.
“It’s not the best to start playing against Aryna with all the balls coming very fast,” said Jabeur ahead of her opener.
“We practiced together yesterday. So it’s going to be a great match. It’s going to be tough. Whoever is going to be more solid on the court is going to win. Definitely I have my own tactic, and I will try my best to overcome her power.”
Swiatek the outright favorite
During the draw ceremony, Kasatkina, Garcia and Gauff all giggled when they realized they had landed in the same group as the ever-dominant Swiatek.
The Polish world No. 1 is 7-0 against Gauff and Kasatkina this season alone and is 1-1 head-to-head overall against Garcia.
Swiatek has clinched eight titles in 2022, including Roland Garros and the US Open, and enters the WTA Finals having won 14 of her last 15 matches.
This is her second consecutive WTA Finals appearance, and she can take confidence from her 24-1 record on US soil this season.
“WTA Finals is a challenge, but she’s a challenge just by herself. She lost very few matches,” Garcia said of Swiatek.
The 21-year-old Swiatek begins her journey in Fort Worth against Kasatkina on Tuesday.
Pegula, Gauff carry home hopes
The first two American women to be ranked simultaneously in the top four since Serena and Venus Williams in 2010, Pegula and Gauff are making their first WTA Finals appearance and have also qualified together in doubles.
Pegula is fresh off the biggest title triumph of her career having lifted the trophy in the WTA 1000 event in Guadalajara last week, while Gauff reached a maiden Grand Slam final earlier this year at Roland Garros.
The 28-year-old Pegula started the year ranked No. 18 in the world and is now up to a career-high No. 3.
“I don’t think I started the year thinking about making WTA Finals, but I think as the year went on and it became more of a goal, it was something I’m more proud of now that I was able to accomplish,” she said.
“So, yeah, it’s a huge honor. I think we’re just all really excited to be here. I think it’s more of a reward for our really great season.”
Teen phenomenon Gauff is the youngest player to qualify for the WTA Finals since Maria Sharapova in 2005. The 18-year-old Floridian is also the youngest American to make it to the championships since Lindsay Davenport in 1994.
While these are impressive stats, they are not ones Gauff spends too much time focusing on.
“I don’t really pay attention to it. Not that I’m not grateful. Obviously I’m really grateful. When it comes to these statistics and stats about my age, I guess…I mean, it’s cool, but I feel like it’s my life, so I don’t look at it as amazing or outstanding as other people look at it,” she explained.
“I’ve gotten asked that a lot about different things in my age. But it is always crazy to me when I find somebody brings up a stat or something about my age, and I feel like almost every tournament is a new thing. It’s going to be somebody else’s turn soon,” she added with a laugh.
Prize money still not where it was
Three years ago, Ashleigh Barty claimed the highest paycheck in tennis history when she scooped $4.42 million for winning the WTA Finals title with a perfect record in the round-robin stage in Shenzhen.
The women’s tour had landed a historic 10-year deal with Shenzhen to stage the WTA Finals there from 2019 onwards, with the prize money committed to the event set at an unprecedented $14 million.
After the inaugural staging of the tournament in Shenzhen in 2019, COVID-19 struck, followed by the Peng Shuai controversy, and the WTA tour has not returned to China since.
Last year, the WTA Finals were hosted in Guadalajara, and this year they found a home in Fort Worth, albeit with a significantly smaller prize purse on offer.
The total prize money for singles this week is $4 million — less than what Barty won by herself in 2019 — with an undefeated champion walking away with a $1.68 million cheque.
The sport is doing everything possible to recover from a tough economic climate, but there is still a long way to go to get back to where it was financially, it seems.