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First Set: Pine proud of WTA Finals’ strong start in Singapore

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MELISSA PINE, Tournament Director of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals, says the expansion of the event following its move to Singapore will help tennis enjoy a new foothold in Asia. Oh, and the players love the Marina Bay Sands’ rooftop pool …

 

Interview SportAsia

 

What has been the feedback from the players about the WTA Finals’ new home in Singapore, after three successful years in Istanbul?

Players seem to be really enjoying Singapore. It’s obviously a world-class city. What’s not to love? I mean, there’s obviously a lot of shopping and restaurants for the players to enjoy. It’s a safe city, very clean, and certainly Marina Bay Sands has been a hit with the players, particularly the rooftop infinity pool (laughs). When they arrived, there were tweets and social buzz going around from the players being on the rooftop, so they all seem to like that pool.

 

The event proper opened with over 8,000 fans in the 10,000-capacity Singapore Indoor Stadium and crowds appeared to increase on the following nights. How have ticket sales been and are you happy with this aspect?

We’re very happy with ticket sales. I think it’s actually exceeding our expectations. The finals day is already sold out and even in this past week, the numbers have been so high. The engagement in the stadium has been just amazing! Just the excitement of the fans, the engagement, the crowd cheering, has been just amazing. It actually exceeded our expectations and now it looks like, day on day, ticket sales are going really fast, so we’re really happy with the turnout.

 

The Future Stars competitors pose with the current stars at the WTA Finals singles draw. Tournament photos: Paul Lakatos / WSG. Portrait: SportAsia.

The Future Stars competitors pose with the current stars at the WTA Finals singles draw. Tournament photos: Paul Lakatos / WSG. Portrait: SportAsia.

You’ve been working on this event for a few years, but there have been major additions this year. It’s now 10 days long when you include the Legends, Rising Stars and Future Stars (U-16, U-14) events. Have these new aspects caught on?

Definitely. The final day of the Rising Stars group matches in the OCBC arena (also used as practice courts) was standing room only, so that was incredible to see. The players absolutely loved playing in front of a crowd and on Tuesday the finalists played in the main stadium.

 

Certainly the fans have really embraced it and we felt that that would happen because it’s bringing the game closer to the fans. The more content we can provide the fans, the more that they learn about the players, they learn about the WTA, the more opportunity they have to engage so I think it’s all just taken off so well.

 

The Future Stars was an exceptional tournament. The winner of the Future Stars had some media engagement in Singapore, so it’s really, really wonderful to see the response.

 

The WTA announced there were almost 700,000 fans votes to decide the four Rising Stars. Considering these players are still rising in the ranks, that has to be rewarding in itself.

I think with us staging the event for five years here in Singapore, we’ve had the opportunity to really engage the fans and get them to know the players, not only the eight players that have qualified [for the WTA Finals singles] but also those that may qualify three, four or five years from now in Singapore.

 

The Rising Stars are those that are rising, just on the cusp, and probably will make it in a few years, so the sooner they can build that relationship, the sooner they can get to know these Rising Stars on and off the court, I think the better it makes this event down the road, if you think how fans will be engaged long term.

 

Indian superstar Sania Mirza greets students at Yu Neng Primary School.

Indian superstar Sania Mirza greets students at Yu Neng Primary School.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Legends, notably Martina Navratilova, who has now committed to supporting the WTA Finals for five years in Singapore. How did that come about?

The fans here love Martina Navratilova. She’s big here! Martina Navratilova loves Singapore, so she came here in August, did a tour and did some other stops in Southeast Asia. She was extremely well received and she absolutely had a blast, so I think it’s just a really great fit and it’s worked out so well. The fans here really embrace Martina and she really embraces Singapore.

 

What about Billie Jean King and Chris Evert?

They’re here for finals weekend and both of them will be getting out for community engagements and sponsor engagements. Billie Jean King is an official ambassador as well as Chris Evert, so they’re our ambassadors along with Li Na, so they’ll be really looking to make an impact and inspire people here.

 

How has the public Fan Zone been received?

The strategy of the WTA is really to enhance the level of fan engagement and enhance the experience for fans. Here in Singapore, as the first time we’ve ever held this event here, it’s a relatively clean slate. Tennis is probably not as big here yet, so the strategy is to really look at ways as to how we can engage fans.

 

How can we attract not only the tennis fans, the hard-core tennis fans but also the entertainment seeker and a wider Singaporean audience? One is definitely the Fan Zone and that gives people a way to come in with their families, check out different booths, try out tennis at a sponsor booth or different activations. It makes it fun for people and really brings people in and introduces them to a sport that they may not know about.

 

There are also the entertainment events, such as the Mariah Carey concert on Friday. We also had a coaches’ clinic on Sunday, utilising the talent that’s coming into Singapore for this event to actually share the knowledge. There’s also a Women In Business summit that the title sponsor is putting on. These are all things that we are tying in with the event to engage the fans and make it a 10-day sport entertainment for everyone to enjoy.

 

There are other elements as well, in stadium, like the tennis players autographing four balls after a match and hitting them out to the crowd. At the OCBC Arena practice sessions, fans get a chance to come and see their favourite players up close and personal in their practice sessions. It’s an unforgettable behind-the-scenes experience that you would never normally get. Then there’s the autograph sessions in the Fan Zone, so players come out daily and sign autographs at the different booths. It’s really a great way to bring everyone in.

 

What are the areas of growth for the coming years? What else can be added?

There’s always room for growth and every year we try to raise the bar and improve on things from the first year. I think this year, we’re going to have a lot of key learnings coming out of the event. Sure, we’re absolutely thrilled with the first few days and how everything is going, but post-event, we’ll definitely look at how we can enhance it.

 

I think we certainly want to do more in the community. I think the more kids you can engage, the more you can introduce young girls and boys to tennis and get rackets in their hands, I think that’s going to help build the legacy here in Singapore in the long term.

 

That’s really what we’re here to do: create a platform and utilise the WTA finals as a platform to build something great and to grow something here and leave a legacy. So certainly we’re going to want to do more community and charity activity, and more to engage the fan and bring out as many people as we can to these events.

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