Inside Istanbul: The WTA Championships' Newest Venue
By Douglas Robson - Thursday, October 27, 2011
ISTANBUL—Does the name Cagla Buyukakcay ring a bell? It didn’t for me, and I’m supposed to be on top of such minutia. Buyukakcay is the highest-ranking Turkish woman in WTA history at No. 157, which says something about Turkish tennis—as it does about this city’s Olympic ambitions (Istanbul is bidding to host the 2020 Games). The Turkish men haven’t done much better. Marsel Ilhan, who reached No. 87 in January and is currently at No. 106, is the only man who has ever cracked the Top 100. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain the country’s underwhelming tennis success, especially when some of its closest European neighbors—countries like Bulgaria and Serbia—have produced world-class talent. But there is no denying that this week Turkey takes center stage in tennis by hosting the women’s year-end finale.
Bringing the championships to this Eurasian and predominantly Muslim nation has its risks. Turkey is a secular state, but there are those that will say that its treatment of women lags behind Western standards. It also lacks much tennis tradition. It’s a familiar theme—is the WTA advancing women’s profile in places like Qatar and Turkey or simply taking the money ($42 million for three years in Istanbul) and running? Sunday’s devastating 7.2 earthquake in the eastern part of the country, which killed more than 450 (and counting), added an inauspicious prelude to the tournament. But viewed another way, perhaps it was a sign of something else: a seismic shift in the geographic alignment of the sport.
I’ve had the chance to the witness the WTA's year-end showcase featuring an elite eight at the last four venues. What was my takeaway? L.A.’s cavernous indoor Staples Center never felt like a suitable location to showcase the event, though Southern California has the tennis-playing fan base to warrant it. The multipurpose facility (home of NHL’s Kings and NBA’s Lakers and Clippers) sits in a dead part of downtown. In the four years I attended, L.A.’s fickle fans either had too many options or were loathe to miss their exfoliation appointments because the place never filled up. It had its share of dramatic moments and high-quality tennis (notably Maria Sharapova’s defeat of an injured but ferociously game Serena Williams in the ’04 final) but it lacked critical mass. A permanent echo, and hollowness, seemed to pervade the arena. The event clunked.
After the run in LA, the championships moved across the pond to Spain in 2006-07. Madrid had promoter Ion Tiriac, which means it had spark. Set in the animated Spanish capital, the indoor Madrid Arena south of downtown wasn’t the fan-friendliest venue but it did have some sizzle. Early matches were often sparsely attended, but once the Iberians were appropriately seated and lubricated, the place rocked. They know how to party in Spain (even if the tennis sometimes felt secondary). Plus, Tiriac made sure that hospitality, back-stage entertaining and even media dining was first class. Let me tell you, it was. The crowds were decent, the music pulsated and the energy was contagious, but there were drawbacks. The steel and cement structure was a bit cold for my taste, and gimmicks like the ball boy models were just plain cheesy.
In 2008, the stakes came up again, this time to the Middle East. I attended the inaugural year at Doha’s Khalifa International Tennis Center, where it had a three-year run. One obvious difference: the event suddenly was no longer indoors and instead was played on outdoor hardcourts. That meant adjusting not only to a new surface but also to new conditions (wind, heat, sun) that players had left behind several weeks ago when the indoor fall season got going. The facility itself—a mishmash of styles—felt barely completed, which it was. The backdrop wasn’t much better: drab desert blandness intersected by mind-bending buildings and construction sites. The players were undoubtedly treated like queens, but crowds were consistently sparse. Women were sparse too. It lacked soul.
How does Istanbul’s Sinan Erdem Arena stack up? If the first night was any indication, darn well. A palpable buzz hovered outside the domed, modern-looking stadium as fans hustled to move through the metal detectors (which seem to be ubiquitous here, including most big hotels). For Tuesday’s opening match—5 p.m. on a weekday afternoon—the place was about 80 percent full. By evening, it was even fuller. First night attendance: an impressive 10,284. The total through three days is 33,177 (a daily average of 11,059).
After playing early-round matches to half-empty stadiums the last few years, players sounded almost shocked. “I haven’t expected something like this,” admitted Vera Zvonareva, who squared off against Petra Kvitova in the day’s first match and who also participated at both L.A. and Doha. “When we both walked on the court, everyone was applauding and everyone was supporting us during the match, and I think it's incredible.”
The veteran Russian added: “I think this event is actually is one of the best ones thus far, because usually in the first day, first match at 5:00 during the weekday, you know, it's hard for people to come…Here it feels like people planned and they knew about it.”
The Sinan Erdem opened in April 2010 and successfully hosted last year’s FIBA world basketball championship (won by the USA over Turkey). The multipurpose arena seats up to 22,500—the largest indoor stadium in the country—and is home to Istanbul’s pro basketball team Anadolu Efes, where Maria Sharapova’s fiancé, Sasha Vajucic, is playing this season during the NBA lockout. (She joked in her pre tournament presser that the first time he actually saw the stadium was at her practice.) For tennis, the arena has been downsized to 10,700, pretty ideal when balancing the business of selling tickets with fan experience. “We have more scope indoors to play music and do lighting,” said Peter Johnston, the WTA’s managing director of Asia Pacific.
In some sense, an indoor stadium is an indoor stadium. There is an undeniable blandness you can’t quite shake. But the visual lines in this domed structure are strong, the acoustics decent, the light shows not overbearing and the fans, though perhaps less knowledgeable than in other parts the tennis circuit, cheered and clapped on cue. On the other hand, working conditions were far from ideal, at least on day one. The electricity for laptops was dead when I arrived; the Internet skipped on and off all evening; the meal schedule was all screwed up (I had no dinner). But really, I’m not complaining! I’m come to expect these kinds of hiccups at newly christened tennis venues.
Although players groused some about the slow, sticky Rebound Ace surface—after her opening loss Tuesday night, Agnieszka Radwanska called it “weird”—it makes sense from a performance and health perspective that the finals be contested indoors, where players have been competing the last few weeks. Symbolically, Istanbul also makes sense. This ancient seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires has operated as the crossroads of two continents for ages. It is the nexus of East and West—not unlike women’s tennis, which has increasingly shed its American and Australian underpinnings. The Russians and Czechs have already arrived (they are Nos. 1 and 2 with players ranked in the Top 100, and Russia has two players in the year-end championships for the 10th consecutive year) and the Chinese are coming. Both debutantes, Wimbledon champ Kvitova and French Open winner Li Na of China, represent the future as much as the past.
Some of the tour’s best-known names are MIA, notably Kim Clijsters and the Williams sisters. Together, this threesome has won five of the last 10 year-end championships and accounted for eight of 20 finalists. The lack of star power has not tamed interest. According to organizers, the final four days are already sold out. But attendance does not a great tournament make. The tennis also has to deliver.
The cast here is inexperienced and, as usual this time of year, a bit beat up. Besides Sharapova—who withdrew after her second match with an ankle injury—both Radwanska and Zvonareva are playing with sore shoulders. The elite eight includes veterans such as Li, 29, and Stosur, 27. But Sharapova was the only former champion and sole multiple Grand Slam winner in attendance. Youth, or health, is likely to prevail.
If nothing else, a successful staging here could usher in the kind of inspiration that creates future stars—players with more name recognition than Buyukakcay. High marks could likewise help Turkey in its bid to host the 2020 Olympics. The last year-end host, Qatar, didn’t end up snagging the 2016 Games, which it bid for, but it did land nearly as large a sporting whale—the 2022 World Cup.
Douglas Robson is a tennis writer for USA Today and is a regular contributor to TENNIS.com.