Chris Evert won the inaugural WTA year-end tournament, the 1972 Virginia Slims Championship, at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club. Seeded No.4, the 17-year-old beat Kerry Melville in the final but couldn’t accept the $25,000 prize because she was still considered an amateur.

“My dad was so happy to get $400 that week for travel expenses,” Evert said, laughing. “That’s all we were allowed to accept back then, for gas and food.”

Today, Evert runs the Evert Tennis Academy, along with her brother, John, in the same town she helped launch the WTA’s year-end celebration.

Evert went on to win four of the first six season finales, and then Martina Navratilova crashed the party. The powerful left-hander from Czechoslovakia went on to win eight of the next 10, from 1978-86. That’s not a misprint. They staged two events in 1986 at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Navratilova won five straight, from 1983-86. Together, Navratilova and Evert captured 12 of the first 16 year-end tournaments.

Road to the WTA Finals: Sabalenka reaches new heights in 2021

“Yeah,” Navratilova said the other day, “we kind of monopolized it there for a while.”

Said Evert, “Twelve of 16? Wow, that’s really domination.”

The once great rivals are now friends and official ambassadors for the Akron WTA Finals Guadalajara, which opens play Wednesday, Nov. 10 in Mexico.

It’s an appropriate end to a consistently surprising season that saw a number of rising players post career-best marks. One of these eight women is going to win the year-end championship for the first time.

Here’s how Evert and Navratilova see the field:

No.1 Aryna Sabalenka, Belarus

2021 titles: 2 (Abu Dhabi, Madrid)

2021 record: 44-16 (.733)

Career titles: 10

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: She began the year ranked No.10, promptly won the event in Abu Dhabi and laid the foundation for a breakthrough season. 

She suffered a handful of tough losses in the first half of the season – the first to Serena Williams in the fourth round of the Australian Open, two to Garbiñe Muguruza in Doha and Dubai and two more to No.1 Ashleigh Barty, in Miami and Stuttgart – but in retrospect, that adversity served her well.

Sabalenka soared into the Madrid final and beat Barty 6-0, 3-6, 6-4, her signature win of the year. Coming into Wimbledon, in 14 previous majors, her best efforts were two trips to the fourth round. This time there was a semifinals breakthrough before losing to Karolina Pliskova. It happened again at the US Open, before she fell to Leylah Fernandez.

Road to the WTA Finals: Krejcikova and Siniakova enjoy 2021 renaissance

Navratilova’s take: "Given the expected slow courts and the high altitude, it will be tricky for her because she hits the ball pretty flat and her margin is really small. Overall, she should be thrilled with her year, although she might be disappointed she didn’t get that major – despite reaching two semifinals. But she’s closing in on it. She was my pick two years ago to win a major, so I think she will win one next year. This would be a good stepping stone for her."

Evert’s take: "She has the highest ceiling of all these players. She’s my next pick for a maiden Grand Slam winner. She’s made so much progress this year, not only her game but her emotional stability. I think Aryna’s ready to take the plunge."

Coaches Corner with Kamau Murray: Aryna Sabalenka 

No.2 Karolina Pliskova, Czech Republic

2021 titles: 0

2021 record: 35-18 (.660)

Career titles: 16

WTA Finals appearances: Fifth (2016: lost in Group play, 2017: lost in Group play, 2018: semifinals, 2019: semifinals)

Road to Guadalajara: It was a relatively slow start, with modest results at the Australian Open (third round) and Stuttgart (quarterfinals). 

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Pliskova opened the grass season with losses in Berlin and Eastbourne but she flourished at the All England Club, reaching the final. After dropping the first set to Barty, she won a fierce tiebreaker in the second before falling 3-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6.

That set Pliskova up for a wonderful run on the North American hardcourts. She was a finalist in Montréal (losing to Camila Giorgi), a semifinalist in Cincinnati (beating Jessica Pegula and Paula Badosa) and a quarterfinalist at the US Open.

Navratilova’s take: "Always high hopes for a fellow Czech, but it’s the same as with Sabalenka – the 5,000 feet above sea level makes it much trickier for her. Margins are small for her, too. Slow courts are not her friend. Still, a great opportunity for her to put a really nice bow on the year, particularly since she’s been to the year-end a number of times."

Evert’s take: "Dependable. Experienced. Calm. Capable of winning any tournament she plays. She’s the best player out there who has not won a Grand Slam, if you look over the past 10 years."

Road to the WTA Finals: Pliskova secures fifth straight spot in year-end championships

No.3 Barbora Krejcikova, Czech Republic

2021 titles: 3 (Strasbourg, Roland Garros, Prague)

2021 record: 45-14 (.763)

Career titles: 3

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: Few have advanced faster, further to the top of the game. As the season began, Krejcikova was ranked No.65 and won only five of nine matches – and then Dubai happened.

Barely avoiding qualifying, she ripped through the main draw, defeating No.25-ranked Maria Sakkari in the first round and a pair of Grand Slam champions, Jelena Ostapenko and Svetlana Kuznetsova, in second and third. Two more wins (Anastasia Potapova and Jil Teichmann) brought her to the final, where she lost to Garbiñe Muguruza.

And then she broke loose, winning  her first career title in Strasbourg and, unseeded, her second at Roland Garros, where she surprised Elina Svitolina, Coco Gauff, Sakkari and, in the final, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She was a doubles gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics with partner Katerina Siniakova and is the only player in Guadalajara qualified for both singles and doubles. Also the only player who played in last week’s Billie Jean King Cup.

Navratilova’s take: "She’s been in the doubles finals before, so that helps here because it’s not a completely new experience. Now she’s a legitimate contender in both singles and doubles. We have not had that in a long, long time in the WTA Finals. What can you say about her other than, what a revelation? I was surprised that she didn’t do better in singles early on, but now I’m surprised at how well she’s done. If you’re No.1 in doubles, you must be a really good player – it doesn’t happen by accident. I like her demeanor on the court. She’s just so cool, calm and collected. She plays with flair; she’s not your average baseliner at all. She’s comfortable anywhere on the court. I think her game adapts well to any surface, so I think she should like the conditions there. I wish she would be a little more aggressive in her positioning. That’s the next step for her, the transition to net."

Evert’s take: "Beautiful story, winning the French Open. Nostalgic and sentimental. The way she won with her composure. Excellent all-court player. Obviously, great doubles player. Nice to see a doubles player translate into a great singles player."

Road to the WTA Finals: From Roland Garros champ to Top 10, the rise of Barbora Krejcikova

No.4 Iga Swiatek, Poland

2021 titles: 2 (Adelaide, Rome)

2021 record: 35-13 (.729)

Career titles: 3

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: After a surprising run to the 2020 Roland Garros title last fall, Swiatek came back with a credible encore in 2021.

She went 9-2 in Australia, taking her second career title in Adelaide, defeating Belinda Bencic in straight sets. There was a phenomenal run in Rome, where she upended soon-to-be French Open champion Krejcikova, Elina Svitolina and Coco Gauff and, in the final, Karolina Pliskova. Swiatek won four matches in her title defense in Paris before losing to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals.

On the grass at Wimbledon, she reached the second week before falling to Ons Jabeur. Likewise, at the US Open, she advanced to the fourth round but lost to Belinda Bencic.

Navratilova’s take: "She’s backed up her first unexpected major win. Was it only a year ago that we were in Paris? A year and one month, actually. Wow. Not everyone backs up winning the first major, and I thought she’d be OK. The way she won the French – game is solid, great athlete, great mover. High tennis IQ. I think her forehand topspin is going to be giving people fits with the altitude – it’s going to be bouncing up over their heads. She’ll be able to open up the court that much more. It’s a nasty forehand. That would be a nice exclamation to her year."

Evert’s take: "I think she has a big upside, but she’s still searching for her form. But I have a lot of belief that she will reach that form. Very impressive. Just had an up-and-down year. I haven’t seen the heights that you imagined for her after winning the French. She’s had to deal with the pressure, and I think that’s affected her. When she gets that form, I think she’s going to be terrific."

Road to the WTA Finals: Swiatek strings together impressive sophomore season

No.5 Maria Sakkari, Greece

2021 titles: 0

2021 record: 36-18 (.667)

Career titles: 1

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: Ten months ago, Sakkari entered the new year ranked No.21 and without ever advancing past the fourth round of a major.

She came hurtling out of the box in Abu Dhabi with a jaunt to the semifinals, leaving Garbiñe Muguruza, Coco Gauff and Sofia Kenin in her wake. She replicated that performance in Miami, beating Naomi Osaka on the way to the final four.

In Paris, her 21st major tournament, she achieved a career first when she advanced to the semifinals, defeating defending champion Iga Swiatek in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova. The pattern repeated itself at the US Open. After upsetting Petra Kvitova, Bianca Andreescu and Karolina Pliskova, Sakkari lost to Emma Raducanu, who went on to win.

Sakkari raced into the final at Ostrava before falling to Anett Kontaveit. She is the first women’s Top 10 player ever from Greece. 

Navratilova’s take: "Breakout year. She’s really improved her transition game, become more proactive, just the reps and having more confidence. Maria was such a good defender, and she relied on that. Now she’s moving forward. I’m impressed with her fighting spirit. She can intimidate people with that because she’s so in your face with her attitude. Might put some people on their heels, literally and figuratively speaking. She plays and acts as if she’s already won the match – even while it’s still being played. She’s got a little shape on her shots, and being able to defend, she should be a force."

Evert’s take: "A human dynamo, that one. She’s something else. Just an incredible, athletic talent. The mobility and the fitness level. She just packs a big punch, despite her small stature. Very aggressive. She can be a giant-killer and beat anybody in the world."

Road to the WTA Finals: A history-making season for Greece's Maria Sakkari

No.6 Garbiñe Muguruza, Spain

2021 titles: 2 (Dubai, Chicago 500)

2021 record: 38-16 (.704)

Career titles: 9

WTA Finals appearances: Fourth (2015: semifinals, 2016: lost in Group play, 2017: lost in Group play)

Road to Guadalajara: It was a spectacular start for Muguruza in 2021. She reached the Yarra Valley Classic final (losing to Ashleigh Barty), the fourth round at the Australian Open and the final in Doha before winning the title in Dubai. It all added up to 19 wins in 23 matches – and then an injury slowed her momentum.

In the transition to clay in Charleston, Muguruza suffered a left thigh injury, which kept her out for a month and had a lingering effect for much longer. She advanced to the quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics (losing to Elena Rybakina) and fell to Barbora Krejcikova twice in two weeks, in Cincinnati and New York.

She found her form at the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic, benefitting from two walkovers. Still, Muguruza took her second title, defeating Ons Jabeur in the final.

Navratilova’s take: "Multiple major winner, just hasn’t had the results in the WTA Finals so far. Obviously, she’s got the game to beat anybody on a given day. Hall of Fame career. She can win on any surface, but she hasn’t had the consistency. If she’s a healthy, she can be a threat again because she’s beaten them all."

Evert’s take: "Having won Wimbledon, Garbiñe has the complete game. She’s strong. When she’s on she has the confidence level that maybe these other players don’t have. What’s set her back is injuries and nerves. She’s a question mark – which Garbi’s going to show up?"

Road to the WTA Finals: Resurgent Muguruza enjoys milestone season

No.7 Paula Badosa, Spain

2021 titles: 2 (Belgrade, Indian Wells)

2021 record: 41-15 (.732)

Career titles: 2

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: She began the year ranked No.70 and, after winning the prestigious title at Indian Wells, was a career-high No.13.

Her first success was Lyon, where she reached the semifinals before falling to Clara Tauson. And then with the start of the clay season, she began a torrid two-month tear. She was a semifinalist in Charleston, beating No.12-ranked Belinda Bencic in the second round and No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the quarterfinals. She did it again in Madrid, defeating Barbora Krejcikova in the first round and Bencic again in the quarters before falling to Barty in the semifinals.

Badosa ran through the field at the Serbia Ladies Open, then achieved her best result in a major, advancing to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. She had a solid summer, getting to the fourth round at Wimbledon, and the quarters at the Tokyo Olympics and Cincinnati.

Indian Wells, her crowning achievement, featured three wins over Grand Slam champions – Krejcikova, Angelique Kerber and, in the final, Victoria Azarenka.

Navratilova’s take: "She likes the slower surfaces. She’s got big weapons – big serve, big forehand, solid backhand. Good mover, good at the net and she will be brimming with confidence after winning Indian Wells. She competed so well, almost willed herself to win that final. There’s no warmup in Guadalajara, right? You have to be ready to go. It’s the known unknown, how well these newcomers respond to this different format. Paula will be flying high."

Evert’s take: "Solid as a rock. She doesn’t have that one, overwhelming weapon that can take the racquet out of your hand, but she moves incredibly well. Has a high tennis IQ – really knows how to play a point and gaining confidence every time she wins."

Road to the WTA Finals: Badosa emerges as all-court threat in breakout season

No.8 Anett Kontaveit, Estonia

2021 titles: 4 (Cleveland, Ostrava, Moscow, Cluj-Napoca)

2021 record: 45-15 (.750)

Career titles: 4

WTA Finals appearances: First

Road to Guadalajara: What a finish. The 25-year-old Estonian defeated Simona Halep 6-2, 6-2 in the Cluj-Napoca final to vault past Ons Jabeur into the eighth spot in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals. In the span of 10 weeks, Kontaveit captured four titles and won 26 of 28 matches. Ironically, that streak began after a loss to Jabeur.

The centerpiece of her season: a 5-0 run in Ostrava, where she beat Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic, Petra Kvitova and Maria Sakkari in the final. In Moscow, Kontaveit also beat fellow year-end qualifier Garbiñe Murguza, her second Top 5 victory of the season.

Navratilova’s take: "By far, the hottest player on the tour past four months. Clearly [coach] Dmitry Tursunov has made a huge difference for her. She just seems to be more free. More flair, more freedom. She doesn’t feel as restricted with her game. They’ve really jelled together. I think she’s going to win the tournament."

Evert’s take: "I’m going to pat myself on the back here, because I’ve always loved her game. Three years ago, when I first studied her … I wondered, 'Why is she not winning more?' So reliable. She has fire in her eyes and she’s moving like lightning. Those two things have accelerated her game."