There is already one verifiable improvement in Singaporean tennis since the WTA Finals moved to that steamy and affluent island city-state.
In 2014, the first year Singapore hosted the championships, no woman from the country held an official WTA ranking. Now, with the latest edition of the year-end tournament set to begin on Sunday, Stefanie Tan, a 24-year-old from Singapore who played tennis at Texas Christian University, is No. 547.
Tan, of course, has a long, long way to go to become a threat to qualify for the Finals, an annual showcase for the world’s top eight women’s singles players and doubles teams. But she does represent progress, which is one of the things the WTA was looking for when it brought these championships to Asia.
Another is the bottom line: Singapore offered the organization more than $70 million for five years.
Although Sania Mirza of India has again qualified for the event in doubles and remains a celebrated figure in her country, what the Finals really need to generate regional buzz is a true women’s singles star from Asia.
Li Na, history’s most successful Asian women’s player, peaked at No. 2 in the rankings and was the first Chinese player, and the first from Asia, to capture a Grand Slam singles title when she won the French Open in 2011. She also won the Australian Open in 2014.
But Li retired abruptly at age 32 in 2014 to start a family and rest her ailing knees. Her popularity is such that Forbes estimated she earned $14 million last year, more than any other retired female athlete.
Today, there are 11 women from Asia in the top 100. The highest ranked is Zhang Shuai, a 27-year-old from Tianjin, China, who was contemplating retirement at the start of the season because of disappointing results but went on to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open as a qualifier. She has yet to reach the final of any tour-level event this year but is ranked 27th.
Zhang is now…