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The grand finale of the tennis season begins in Shanghai on Sunday with the lucrative Tennis Masters Cup, the tournament regarded as the unofficial “fifth major”.
The spotlight will inevitably fall on Roger Federer and whether he can add another triumph to what has been his most successful year so far. However, a compelling backdrop to the drama is provided by the event’s location and concerns over the development of professional tennis in Asia, which is crucial to the sport’s future.
The tournament, which is restricted to the year’s best eight men, is in many ways a blueprint for the future of men’s tennis. Its status and lucrative $3.7m prize money guarantee the attendance of the leading players, in contrast to the numerous withdrawals that plague too many tournaments because of the game’s long and crowded calendar.
It also begins on a Sunday and with a round-robin system, innovations that the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, plans to introduce at a growing number of tournaments from next year to try to offer a more attractive package to fans and television. The round-robin, in which competitors all play each other in a league system to qualify for the knockout stage, favours the best players because it reduces the chances of them being knocked out early. The ATP says fans, sponsors and broadcasters want to see more, not less, of the stars.
Federer is the hottest of favourites in Shanghai as the Swiss appears to be at the height of his powers. His 11 titles this year have included three of the four majors – Wimbledon and the Australian and French Opens.
The other three in his round-robin group are David Nalbandian of Argentina, Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic and American Andy Roddick. The other group contains world number two Rafael Nadal of Spain, his compatriot Tommy Robredo, Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko and James Blake of the US.
Initial attention will focus on Federer against Nalbandian, for it was the Argentine who memorably defeated the world number one in last year’s Masters Cup final in a fifth-set tie-break after being two sets down. But Federer was not fully fit then after an ankle injury and Nalbandian has declined this year, with the lack of venom in his serve increasingly handicapping him.
Nor does Nadal seem likely to renew the rivalry with Federer that lit up the first half of 2006. The French Open champion transferred his dominance on clay to surprisingly sparkling form on grass in reaching the Wimbledon final. It then seemed Federer was facing a serious challenge for his number one crown on all surfaces. But Nadal has had a disappointing time since Wimbledon, failing to get beyond the quarter-final stage of a tournament.
The biggest threat to Federer may well come from the in-form Davydenko, whose ice-like temperament and punishing consistency has secured him recent titles in Moscow and Paris.
The sport’s leading officials might silently be cheering on Roddick and Blake as the US remains the biggest market and American fans and broadcasters need native winners to keep them interested. Worryingly, the WTA Championships, the women’s equivalent of the Masters Cup, which has been taking place in Madrid this week, contains not a single American for the first time.
This makes the development of tennis in Asia all the more important as it is regarded as the next big market for the game. Staging the Masters Cup for four years from 2005-2008 in Shanghai’s magnificent Qi Zhong tennis complex, with its extraordinary eight-piece magnolia-shaped retractable roof, is part of a long-term plan to spread the tennis gospel in Asia.
Tennis has blossomed at grassroots level, particularly in Japan and China, and at the professional tier in the women’s game. China has four women in the world top 100, including Na Li and Wimbledon doubles champion Jie Zheng, Japan has three and India’s Sania Mirza has become a national superstar.
Now what is needed is for some Asian males to become world stars. Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan and South Korea’s Hyung-Taik Lee have made a mark in the top 50 in recent years but are unlikely winners of a grand-slam tournament.
Etienne de Villiers, ATP executive chairman and president, says the Asian public and government officials are embracing tennis but adds: “The biggest challenge is to find the players.”
He points out that while there are similarities between the way tennis and golf have evolved as sports played in most countries throughout the world, there is an important difference. “Golf has a sufficient pool of players to populate three tours [the US, Europe and Asia] but tennis does not.”
Part of the ATP’s strategy to broaden the game’s appeal is to have a more coherent tour calendar from 2009, with 16 elite tournaments around the world and many of them positioned as preliminary events to the four majors and the Masters Cup. De Villiers wants to have at least two of the 16 in Asia, with one of them a combined men and women’s tournament.
“I think the structure of the tour will change a lot in 10 years,” he says, adding: “There is huge potential in India and China.”
While so many of the game’s leading players come from North and South America and Europe, however, he says expansion in Asia will have to be carefully planned, with the athletes taken into consideration. They already have a surfeit of long-haul travel and cultural aspects come into play – what De Villiers refers to as the Lost in Translation syndrome, referring to the film about Americans suffering cultural alienation in Japan.
The next two years are particularly important while the Masters Cup remains in Shanghai and the Olympic Games takes place in Beijing in 2008, offering top-class tennis another showcase in Asia. After that, the Masters Cup will move to a European venue.
“Our tour ends in Europe, it does not make sense to ship everyone off to China [for one tournament],” De Villiers explains. Competition for the right to stage it will be fierce, with Paris, Madrid and London expected to be strong contenders.
Meanwhile, Federer has been spearheading the marketing campaign in Shanghai this week and his activities have included a rendezvous with his new friend Tiger Woods, who is playing in the HSBC Champions golf tournament at the city’s Sheshan International club.
De Villiers is adamant that Federer’s current dominance is not detracting from the game’s appeal by making matters too predictable. “I think it is great [for the game]. He is such a great icon,” and adds: “Woods has certainly not been bad for golf.”