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DUBAI: With a new temporary home, an altitude of 1,500m that will make for some challenging conditions, and six first-time singles qualifiers, the WTA Finals begins in Guadalajara, Mexico on Wednesday.

The prestigious season finale, which is back on the tennis calendar for the first time since 2019, and will return to its usual host city of Shenzhen in China next year, features the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams competing in a round-robin format, with the best-performers advancing to the semi-finals.

There had been some criticism leveled at the choice of location for the event, mainly because of the high altitude and the current difficulties involved in traveling from Europe to Mexico. But the very fact that the tour was able to find a home for the season-ending championship during such difficult times should be viewed as a triumph, as Billie Jean King was keen to emphasize during a recent interview.

“They killed themselves (to make it happen),” King, the founder of the WTA, told me last month. “First of all, the women have to understand, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity but where did the money come from?’ So they have to appreciate and support these tournaments and I get irritated when they don’t connect.

“They need to understand why and where, and why it’s important to participate, because it will go away very fast if you don’t work hard at keeping them and improving them. I don’t know if the players understand that.”

On the eve of the competition, all eight singles players sounded genuinely grateful for the efforts of event organizers and happy to have reached the WTA Finals. Here are some highlights from Tuesday’s media day in Guadalajara.

Pliskova banking on experience

Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza are the only qualifiers in the singles competition with prior experience of competing at the WTA Finals.

At 29 years old, Pliskova is the oldest competitor. She is making her fifth appearance at the event and is a three-time semi-finalist. She said she hopes her previous experience of the competition will give her an edge over her opponents, and noted the unusually tricky nature of the round-robin format.

“Definitely (I) have more experience than the other girls of this, because this is not a usual tournament,” the Czech “Ace Queen” said.

“Of course you play different; you have these (round-robin) groups. It has happened to me that you lose, then you play another day and you have to win. There are many things going on here; (it is) not just like you lose and you go home (or) you win and you continue. It’s not a normal tournament.

“I think that experience, of course, can help me — or should help me. On the other hand I see so many of the young girls here who are playing for the first time and they’re so excited. I think sometimes this excitement can be dangerous because they are happy that they are here, they don’t care about anything else.”

The world No. 4 opens her campaign against Muguruza on Wednesday evening.

Muguruza and Badosa can count on crowd support

For the first time in 21 years, two Spanish players are in the singles field at the WTA Finals.

Former world No. 1 Muguruza is making her fourth appearance but her first since 2017, while Paula Badosa makes her debut after clinching a qualification spot with her breakthrough title run at Indian Wells last month.

Badosa, 23, paid tribute to Muguruza and spoke about how the two-time major champion had influenced her.

“She is a player who has always been a mirror in which to look at myself,” she said. “She broke all the stereotypes. Such a dynamic and aggressive game was not common in Spanish tennis.

“She is tall, different, my favorite. She has a game that I loved when I was growing up. I have always said that I would like to go where she has arrived. I am getting closer to her level and it’s an honor to have two Spanish women here.”

The Spanish pair said they are thrilled to have the opportunity to compete in Mexico and, as Spanish-speaking players, feel they can connect with the home crowd. Muguruza also has Latin American roots, having been born in Venezuela.

“I do feel we could be the fan favorites just because we have a similar culture,” said 28-year-old Muguruza. “I feel like this is going to motivate young girls from Spain, from Latin America.

“I never thought that Latin America would hold a Masters final, just because it is very complicated (and there are) many aspects. When (WTA CEO) Steve (Simon) said that Guadalajara was an option, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, are you sure? You mean Guadalajara, Mexico, right, not another Guadalajara?’

“I was so nervous to make it happen. Now I want it even more. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That had a big effect on me.”

Altitude will be a key factor

Playing at such high altitude is something the players are not accustomed to and they each talked about how they plan to adapt to the unique conditions.

Pliskova admitted that her practice sessions have not gone entirely smoothly so far, joking: “We will not speak about that.”

Iga Swiatek said she spent some time practicing in the mountains of Phoenix, Arizona, in the run-up to the tournament, which helped her get used to playing at altitude.

Maria Sakkari, the first Greek player to qualify for the WTA Finals, believes the conditions will be a test of patience, and feels it will all come down to who has the right mentality.

“I personally know I might not play my best tennis but I have to accept it because sometimes it will feel weird,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll make mistakes that you wouldn’t make in sea-level tournament.

“It’s just whoever accepts the most mistakes, whoever accepts playing ugly tennis this week — ‘ugly,’ you know what I mean — will give herself a better chance of winning the tournament.”

Kontaveit’s hot streak

If anyone thought Anett Kontaveit would be mentally exhausted after a late-season push during which she won four of her last seven tournaments to make her top-10 debut and become the first Estonian to qualify for the WTA Finals, think again.

The 25-year-old, who has won 26 of her last 28 matches, is not short on motivation and gave an assurance that she is not finished with this season just yet.

“The job’s not done,” she said. “I didn’t know how I was going to react and face this sort of new situation. Genuinely, I thought after winning in Moscow I’d feel some sort of relief. I thought after winning in Transylvania I would feel relief, just relaxed. But it still hasn’t happened.

“I feel like I’m still in the zone of trying to keep doing as well as I can, hopefully get some good matches and just really focus on the task that I have, just the process, the progress that I’m trying to make, and enjoy the matches.”

Top-seeded Sabalenka up for the challenge

In the absence of world No. 1 and defending champion Ashleigh Barty, Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka finds herself the top seed on her WTA Finals debut and it is a position she is relishing.

“You have to deal with the pressure,” said Sabalenka, who was forced to withdraw from Indian Wells last month after testing positive for COVID-19. “I think I’m doing well with the pressure. I’m really happy to be here, especially top-seeded.

“I couldn’t imagine one day I would be top-seeded at the WTA Finals. For me this is something amazing and unbelievable. I’m really super happy with my level this year. I’m really proud of my team, what they have done for me this year.

“I’m just really looking forward to all these big matches. I’m really hoping that I can show my best and I can play great tennis and go as far as I can. This is the only expectation I have.”

Krejcikova feels like she belongs

Barbora Krejcikova has played more than 100 singles and doubles matches this season and qualified for the WTA Finals in both categories.

In a stunning 2021 during which she won singles and doubles titles at Roland Garros, clinched Olympic gold in women’s doubles and captured two WTA singles trophies, she could be forgiven for feeling exhausted at this point in the season.

But after a late arrival in Guadalajara, having represented the Czech Republic at the Billie Jean King Cup Finals in Prague last week, Krejcikova insisted she is healthy and good to go.

The 25-year-old Czech said that earlier in the season, “when I was playing in Paris, I would say imagining myself being here in five months, I would be really shocked and really surprised.

“Now I’m here, I think I was just really working hard and I think I had a really, really good season, so I think I just deserve to be here. I think I deserve to play the best players right now.”

Iga inspired by the Phoenix Suns

Swiatek spent the past month in the US, training, being a tourist and unwinding as she prepared for her WTA Finals debut.

The 20-year-old from Poland, the youngest player in Guadalajara, said she attended some NBA games in LA and Phoenix, and developed a connection with last season’s finalists, the Phoenix Suns, especially veteran point guard Chris Paul.

“The Phoenix Suns, everybody there was so enthusiastic,” said Swiatek. “You felt like many people there, they knew what’s going on. They were really shouting. It was really emotional. It was great.

“Also, all the things that were around the match, like the cheerleaders, also the contests for the fans, it was pretty cool. We had fun, for sure.

“It was hard to choose (one favorite player) but Chris Paul was pretty cool.”

Swiatek was so impressed by him, she revealed, she bought a Paul jersey.

“At the beginning of the match I could see that he’s not, like, 100 percent in the game,” she added. “I could see how he’s making progress during the match, how he’s changing his game little bit. I also have that situation sometimes on court, so it was fun to see that.”

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