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Where have the fans gone?
FOR the last nine months or so, several hundred female tennis players have travelled around the world to compete against one another at different competitions, all eager to rack up enough points to qualify for the annual season finale in Singapore.
The top eight are in town this week, fighting tooth and nail at the BNP Paribas Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Finals Singapore presented by SC Global tournament with US$7 million in prize money up for grabs.
Speaking as an ardent tennis fan, the quality of the matches has been top-notch so far, with many battles going the full three sets and often needing a tie-break to determine the winner.
Some matches can easily be placed into the "classics" category of women's professional tennis. Last Sunday's opening tussle featuring world No 1 Angelique Kerber and unfancied Dominika Cibulkova was a three-set epic, as was the back-and-forth clash between defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska and Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova the next day.
On Friday, reigning WTA Finals doubles champions Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza needed to use all their experience and talent to fend off a spirited challenge from Taiwanese sisters Chan Hao-ching and Chan Yung-jan.
As such it's been quite disappointing that so few fans have turned up at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang this week to witness the drama, intensity and action unfolding on Centre Court.
It's not uncommon to see rows of empty chairs in the 10,000-seater arena during many of the matches, which all makes for a pretty flat atmosphere at times.
Six of the eight sessions so far have commenced in the evening, with the other two kicking off in the early afternoon. The cheapest tickets are S$16.90 each, while the most expensive seat for Sunday's championship final is S$225.90.
The day sessions, in particular those held on weekdays, have usually not performed as well in terms of ticket sales, and understandably so.
Most people are still at the workplace or school during that time of the day and it's been a challenge for the event promoter, Lagardere Sports, to get more bums on the seats. The evening sessions usually sell better as they attract the working crowd, which is why Lagardere made the decision to reduce the number of day sessions this year.
I've spoken to several event partners and WTA officials over the last few days, and they lament the culture in Singapore where people typically wait until the last minute to buy tickets, especially for sports events. Even then, the take-up hasn't been all that encouraging.
The problem is more acute for the season-ending WTA Finals, because the complete line-up of players is often not known until the very last minute, making it difficult to promote the tournament or advertise certain players.
Kuznetsova, for instance, only stamped her passport to Singapore the day before the tournament began, thanks to last weekend's Kremlin Cup victory in Moscow that propelled the 31-year-old into the eighth and final qualifying position.
The star power at the WTA Finals definitely took a hit this year when American superstar Serena Williams, arguably the most recognisable face on the current women's tour, withdrew from the tournament at the eleventh hour due to a shoulder injury.
Another famous face, Maria Sharapova, also didn't make the trip to Singapore as she is busy serving a 15-month suspension for consuming a banned substance. The Russian isn't likely to play at next year's WTA Finals either, given that she only returns to competition at the end of April and probably won't earn enough rankings points to qualify as one of the top eight.
But let's not take any credit away from the current crop of players who are giving their all and running their lungs out on the court in Singapore. Kerber is living up to her billing as the world's best tennis player today, winning all three of her matches to date. Debutant Madison Keys, the youngest player at just 21 years, certainly won over more than a handful of new admirers with her energetic displays.
There's no shortage of talent on court with the likes of top-ranked doubles team Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic, French Open singles champion Garbine Muguruza and former world No 1 Hingis.
I don't want to sound like a salesman for the WTA Finals, but I do hope the fans will show up in droves for the final two days of the event on Saturday and Sunday. Granted, there isn't a lack of fun things to do on any given weekend here, but it isn't everyday that you get the best tennis players in the world under one roof, and right at our doorstep too.
At a time when people are cutting back on their expenses in the current depressed economy, it's great to see that tickets don't cost an arm and a leg.
The lowest-priced seats are only slightly dearer than the price of watching a movie, with most of the sessions lasting three to four hours, and sometimes much longer. The final match on Monday night wrapped up just before 2am. Now that's what I call value for money.
This is the third of five editions of the WTA Finals to be staged in Singapore, and who knows when we will get to host such a prestigious tennis championship again after 2018?
Earlier this week at a press conference, WTA CEO Steve Simon praised Singapore for being a great host and expressed his wish for the WTA Finals to have a longer future in the Lion City.
A full house at the Indoor Stadium everyday is probably too much to ask for, but a healthy and vociferous crowd on most days would surely go a long way to convince the higher-ups that this elite tournament deserves to remain in Singapore for the long haul.