Halep the player to watch
Despite absence of Serena and Sharapova, tournament chief Pine purrs about depth in field
They have sizzled with their performances on tennis courts across the world throughout the year.
And the world's top eight women players proved they were just as dazzling off it, at the singles draw for the WTA Finals presented by SC Global yesterday evening, held at the skating rink at Marina Bay Sands.
Looking more like supermodels than professional tennis players, the ladies added a touch of glamour to the week-long tournament, which starts tomorrow.
There were question marks whether this year's WTA Finals would lack star power with the absence of world No. 1 Serena Williams (injury) and Russian Maria Sharapova (drugs ban).
But the presence of over 250 members of the public, who craned their necks for a glimpse of the likes of world No. 1 Angelique Kerber or defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, suggested otherwise.
In fact, a crowd began forming well over an hour before the players were scheduled to arrive.
And when they did appear, smartphones were duly whipped out as fans strained to snap a picture of their favourite players.
Leggy world No. 6 Garbine Muguruza looked stunning in a black and white dress.
Dainty Simona Halep, who scored a memorable group-stage victory over Williams at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in 2014, got her share of cheers and whistles in a cream lace dress.
Debutante Dominika Cibulkova certainly turned a few heads in her cocktail dress.
Taking their seats on stage to field questions from fans, the ladies exuded poise, with the coveted gleaming Billie Jean King trophy just an arm's reach away.
WTA Finals tournament director Melissa Pine was convinced that there is enough talent on show to compensate for the absence of Williams and Sharapova.
"If you look at the field, we have the No. 1 in the world (Kerber), we have last year's champion (Radwanska), and we have amazing women who have qualified for the first time," she said.
"They're hungry, keen and energetic, and they really want to get their shot.
"It's an incredible blend of the top talent in women's tennis, and our new generation of stars."
Apart from 27-year-old Slovak Cibulkova, 21-year-old American Madison Keys and 24-year-old Czech Karolina Pliskova are also making their first appearances at the WTA Finals.
They could be joined by a fourth debutante, Britain's Johanna Konta.
While the 25-year-old was present at yesterday's draw, she is not assured of a place in the tournament.
Konta is in line to take the eighth and final singles spot, but the place will go to Kuznetsova if the Russian wins the ongoing Kremlin Cup in Moscow today.
Kuznetsova beat Ukrainian Elina Svitolina in yesterday's semi-finals and faces either Germany's Julia Goerges or Australian Daria Gavrilova in today's final.
Pine believes the many new faces underscore the depth of women's tennis today.
"We have the next generation of stars here," said the Canadian, who is also vice-president of WTA Asia-Pacific. "Someone like Madison Keys is so keen and hungry, and she's worked so hard all year long to qualify to come to Singapore.
"These players are going to leave it all out on the court and they're looking to make their statement, make their mark.
"I think that will make for some intense and exciting tennis.
"We have such depth that it really could be anybody's title."
(World ranking in brackets)
- Angelique Kerber (1)
- Simona Halep (4)
- Madison Keys (7)
- Dominika Cibulkova (8)
- Agnieszka Radwanska (3)
- Karolina Pliskova (5)
- Garbine Muguruza (6)
- Johanna Konta or Svetlana Kuznetsova
Third time lucky for Halep?
Could this finally be Simona Halep's year?
The dainty Romanian first announced herself to the world two years ago, when she stunned world No. 1 Serena Williams 6-0, 6-2, in a group-stage match at the 2014 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Halep (pictured) went on to reach the final, only for Williams to exact revenge and deny her the biggest win of her career.
Last year, she entered the WTA Finals as the top seed, after Williams chose to sit out the tournament to recover from injuries.
But the 25-year-old was eliminated at the group stage, after losses to Maria Sharapova and eventual winner Agnieszka Radwanska.
Halep will be hoping it is a case of third time lucky, as she gears up for the week-long WTA Finals.
Williams has once again pulled out of this year's tournament because of injury, while Sharapova is serving a drugs ban, although new world No. 1 Angelique Kerber is the hot favourite having bagged two Grand Slam titles this year.
Touted as a dark horse, Halep certainly looked comfortable at the tournament draw at the skating rink at The Shoppes, Marina Bay Sands, yesterday evening.
Wearing a cream lace dress, the world No. 4 was all smiles as she took to the stage.
"The biggest memory for me was beating Serena here in Singapore (in 2014)," she said. "I don't know why (I performed so well)... Maybe it could be the shopping."
Halep, who squeezed in a shopping trip every day at the WTA Finals in 2014, revealed that she rewards herself with a splurge after winning matches.
"I hope I win more matches here, so I can buy myself more things," she said with a wide grin.
Don't be surprised if you spot her in Singapore's shopping belts after the WTA Finals.
While there has not been much for Halep to shout about in 2016, she has had a strong second half of the year.
She enjoyed a 13-match winning streak during the hardcourt summer swing, winning back-to-back titles at the Bucharest Open and Canadian Open in July.
She also reached the quarter-finals of the last two Grand Slams of the year - at Wimbledon and the US Open - as well as the semi-finals of the Cincinnati Open in August.
WTA Finals tournament director Melissa Pine said that with the unpredictability of the event, she won't be surprised if one of the dark horses goes all the way.
"The format, which is a round-robin that culminates into the (semi-finals and final), makes every single match feel like a final, and there are no easy matches," said Pine, who is also vice-president of WTA Asia-Pacific. "I think that (the winner) could end up being somebody that may have been the dark horse.
"We saw it last year with Radwanska, who just emerged and won the biggest title of her career here.
"So the suspense is there. Who's going to lift the Billie Jean King Cup this year?"
Halep could just be the answer.
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ