China’s tennis revolution

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Beijing may have the Olympics in 2008 but it is Shanghai that is the Chinese city making a regular mark on the international sporting calendar.

A year ago, Formula One motor racing visited China for the first time at the $350m race track outside Shanghai that Michael Schumacher described as the best he had ever seen – before he limped home in 12th place. This weekend Tiger Woods is in town to play at the HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan Club.

Meanwhile, only a few miles down the road, Roger Federer is the star attraction at the Masters Tennis Cup, the end-of-season event that aims to bring together the top eight men in the world and opens tomorrow. The tournament is the fifth most important after the four majors and boasts prize money totalling $4.45m.

The Masters Cup will christen Shanghai’s striking new Qizhong tennis stadium, which is to become the centerpiece of a strategy to develop the sport in China. “I would not go so far as to say it is an arms race but there is certainly a lot of healthy competition between Shanghai and Beijing to become the leading sports city in China,” says Terry Rhoads at Zou Marketing, a sports consultancy in Shanghai.

When China takes on a new chall­enge, whether it is building a financial market or encouraging classical music, it usually starts with a huge construction project and hopes that the other pieces will follow behind. The country’s assault on the tennis world is following the same path. After the Masters Cup was staged in Shanghai for the first time in 2002, former mayor Chen Liangyu decided the city needed an eye-catching ­tennis facility to spur interest.

Japanese architect Mitsuru Senda was hired to design a 15,000-seat stadium and his plan has precisely the sort of engineering flair that his Chinese clients were looking for. The focal point is the movable roof, which is in eight two-tonne parts and resembles a flower when it is opened. (Mr Senda says the pieces form the petals of a peony, one of China’s national flowers, although the tournament promoters describe it as a magnolia, which is Shanghai’s symbol.)

“It is a spectacular place,” said Andre Agassi after practising for the first time on the main court.

When the $150m Qizhong complex is finished next year, the 80-acre site will have 40 outdoor and indoor courts and will be used as one of the main training centres for young ­Chinese players.

The organisers, however, face tough challenges in making a success of the Masters Cup, which will be in Shanghai until at least 2007. Some of this year’s main attractions, notably Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, have pulled out of the event. And, like the F1 track, the stadium is not easy to reach, being 27km from the city centre with no easy public transport options.

But as the players make the long trek to the stadium through Shanghai’s endless southern suburbs, they will see just how popular tennis is becoming. Many of the new middle-class housing complexes that are sprouting up boast pristine courts.

Tennis began to take off in the late 1990s when Shanghai transport group Ba-Shi Industrial bought the franchise for the Heineken Cup tournament. Michael Chang, the Chinese-American player, was a strong contender at the time and proved a huge draw.

“Partly through Michael Chang, the tournament started to get coverage on television and the interest blossomed from there,” says Charles Smith, managing director of TMC, which is organising the Shanghai tournament.

From only a handful of people 10 years ago, Shanghai alone now has about 100,000 regular tennis players.

Having world number one Federer in town helps draw the crowds but it is home-grown stars that will broaden support for the sport. “For tennis to really take off, we will need a Yao Ming figure,” says Mr Rhoads, referring to the basketball player who is one of the stars of America’s NBA (see Simon Kuper, left).

In the case of the men, that seems a long way off – China has only two players in the top 400. The women, however, are advancing rapidly. In Olympics-crazy China, nothing talks more than gold medals, so the ­victory in Athens in the women’s doubles by Li Ting and Sun Tiantian was the most important event yet for tennis in the country. And Li Na won the WTA tournament in Guangzhou in 2004.

The great hope though, is Peng Shuai, a hard-hitting 19-year-old who has been making headlines on the woman’s tour. In August, she toppled Kim Clijsters in straight sets in the quarter-final of a tournament in California and afterwards won rave reviews from the US Open champion.

“She’s the best player I’ve played in a long time,” said the Belgian world number two. “I think she can definitely become top three.”

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