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Youth set to be served in Shenzhen

By SUN XIAOCHEN in Shenzhen, Guangdong province | China Daily | Updated: 2019-10-28 09:06
From left, Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and Karolina Pliskova are the eight players in the $14 million WTA Finals, which debuted its scheduled 10-year run in Shenzhen on Sunday. [Photo/IC]

At 29, Kvitova is oldest of WTA's 'elite eight' competing for record prize pool

The youth brigade of women's tennis is holding court at the WTA Finals' China debut, with youngsters on a collision course for the richest prize pool in the sport's history.

The WTA Finals, the season finale of the women's pro circuit, opened its 10-year stay in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on Sunday, marking the first time in the event's 47 years that all eight singles participants were born after 1990.

They're vying for a record prize pool of $14 million.

Among the elite eight who qualified by WTA ranking, US Open champion Bianca Andreescu of Canada (No 4) stands out as the youngest entrant at 19, while No 6 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic is the oldest, at 29.

Capping a season in which three of the four Grand Slams were won by under-23 stars-Wimbledon champion and former No 1 Simona Halep of Romania was the exception-the Shenzhen tournament is bearing witness to the rise of the next generation.

The crown jewel of the WTA Tour pits the elite eight in two groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing into the semifinals to fight for 1,500 ranking points and a shot at the maximum prize of $4.725 million if she goes unbeaten through the round-robin stage.

The champion's check in Shenzhen is the biggest in tennis history, well eclipsing the previous record of the $3.85 million for the singles winner at this year's US Open.

"This is great for the game, and it's great for women and girls everywhere who want to achieve something, whether in sports or other fields," tennis legend Martina Navratilova said in her Saturday column on wtatennis.com.

"This sends a message to a girl that she can be the doctor and not the nurse, that she can be the player and not the cheerleader (no disrespect to nurses and cheerleaders intended)," wrote the 18-time Grand Slam singles winner.

"The final tournament of the year is wide open. I think it's anyone's ball game. Each one of the eight can win if her hand gets hot for a week."

Drawn into Group Red with 22-year-old reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka of Japan, French Open winner Ashleigh Barty (22) of Australia and Swiss ace Belinda Bencic (22), Kvitova, who is making her seventh appearance in the Finals, embraces the youth challenge as an extra motivation.

"I just realized yesterday that I'm the oldest one, which feels pretty weird," said Kvitova, who won the title in her Finals debut in 2011-one of four players to accomplish that feat.

"But I'm going to take it. I spoke with Simona ... she's just one year younger than me. We made some fun of it.

"Except for Naomi, they are here for the first time ... but not the last time, probably. The new faces are coming. It's normal that the generation is changing."

Group Purple sees tournament debutante Andreescu take on a trio of Finals stalwarts in Czech twotime semifinalist Karolina Pliskova, 2014 finalist Halep and defending champion Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.

Andreescu, who upset the mighty Serena Williams in straight sets to capture her first Grand Slam in New York, has notched the sharpest ranking climb of the year, from No 178 at the end of 2018 to No 4 this week. She also won at Toronto and Indian Wells.

Halep said the fear factor that once hampered the youngsters is no longer applicable.

"The young players now have more courage, their minds are open. They have more power than girls did 10 years ago," Halep said ahead of her Monday group opener against Andreescu.

"I feel when they face the big players, they are not nervous like we were. I think it's a big plus for them. It's going to be a big challenge for us, the older players. But tennis is growing up, so we have to adjust ourselves to everything that's new."

Despite their absence in singles, Chinese players will make the local crowd cheer in the doubles competition as the nation's third-ranked singles ace Zhang Shuai and doubles specialist Xu Yifan will partner with Aussie veteran Sam Stosur and Canada's Gabriela Dabrowski respectively in the eight-team round-robin tournament.

"I'm very excited to be able to make this huge event's debut in my home country, even in the doubles," said Zhang, the world's 46th-ranked singles player who won the Australian Open doubles title with Stosur in January.

"Since the win in Australia, we've been looking forward to coming to Shenzhen. We've put in a lot of effort. We play doubles together as much as possible throughout the year. I'm just very happy to be able to make it here," said the 30-year-old Tianjin native.

An undefeated duo in Shenzhen could earn $1 million in prize money, the largest doubles purse in tennis history.

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