Tennis set to explode in China
Tennis is taking off in China. More chic than table tennis and more accessible than golf, it is rapidly becoming the sport of choice for the mainland's young professionals. With new courts spreading across the country and eager players rushing to book lessons, the sport's popularity will be given another major boost when the second annual China Open starts tomorrow at the Beijing Tennis Centre, a state-of-the-art venue purposely built for last year's tournament.
The game provides obvious fitness benefits and the chance to socialise, but there is also the opportunity for business networking, a key facet of China's booming economy. It is also viewed as a prestigious and sophisticated leisure activity that fits the lifestyles of young urban Chinese eager to embrace Western cultures and pastimes. The headline-grabbing success in the 1990s of Chinese-American player Michael Chang, and the gold medal triumph at last year's Athens Olympics by women's doubles pair Li Ting and Sun Tiantian, also helped focus attention on the sport. Tennis experts believe it is only a matter of time before China produces a player with the ability to win a grand slam tournament.
The Chinese government is developing tennis with one eye firmly on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. With the nation having already tasted success in Athens, government officials have put in place programmes they hope will bring more medals in three years. A large number of Chinese players now travel full-time on the professional tour and many others are receiving high-level training in Europe, the US and Australia.
The China Open will play a crucial role in the development of tennis in the country, says tournament director Ekkehard Rathgeber, chief operating officer of tournament co-organiser TOM Group Limited. 'Of course, it is vital that China does well in tennis at the 2008 Olympics.
'In this respect, the China Open has a key role in that it will help further the development of tennis in China. Firstly, the tournament gives young Chinese players the chance to gain match-play experience in a high-profile event. Secondly, it will help fuel the tennis explosion that is taking place in China.'
One man who knows all about China's new-found tennis craze is Beijing based-coach Dave Roberts, who regularly works 10-hour days as he teaches students the finer points of the game. 'Everyone wants to pick up the game, it is incredible the way it is growing,' says the Canadian, who trained at the Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida, which has produced dozens of professional players, including China Open drawcard Maria Sharapova. 'It is what I call one of the 'business sports': if you want to do business in China you have to be able to play tennis. I have a lot of clients who book my time and entertain their business associates on the court.
'In terms of future stars, this is the one area that China is extremely focused on. The Chinese Tennis Association is truly dedicated to producing future stars. In the next five to six years there will be some big changes in the coaching structure and you will start to see the results.'
Arthur Huang Zhao An typifies the sort of young and ambitious Chinese who are taking up the sport. Huang studied economics at university in Boston and worked in the financial sector before completing his MBA and returning to China to start a business.
Huang, 30, says tennis is the perfect way to wind down and socialise but can still be used to meet informally with business contacts. 'It is much easier to learn than golf and more convenient,' he says. 'Tennis is a game where a senior manager can entertain clients: it is also a lot cheaper than golf and doesn't take so much time. It is prestige at a reasonable price. More people are being exposed to tennis in Beijing. There is certainly greater demand for coaching.'
Even Beijing's chilly winters cannot halt the spread of tennis as the capital has a number of private members clubs equipped with indoor courts. Rathgeber highlights some significant numbers that illustrate the boom. 'China's tennis-playing population is estimated to be around eight million and there are some 50,000 courts nationwide. And according to the latest figures, racquet sales have risen to about 1.5 million per year.'
Anticipation of the China Open is high, especially among keen amateur players such as Julia Zhang Yu, who plays regularly and has enrolled her nine-year-old son, Edward Ren Zhuang, for regular coaching. 'I play three times a week, it is a lot of fun and great exercise,' she says. 'Originally, I started playing with other mothers - friends from my son's kindergarten - and then decided to have coaching. It is a much more convenient sport than golf, where you have to drive a long way to play.'
One young professional with the tennis bug is business executive Jin Kai, who first played the sport at university a decade ago. 'It is becoming very popular, with much more awareness,' says the 34-year-old. 'People consider it a more prestigious sport than table tennis. Most of my partners are young professionals like myself. Some play golf but we are all busy, and golf takes up too much time.'
Just how big tennis is becoming will be demonstrated at the China Open over the next two weeks when spectators are expected to turn up in their tens of thousands Among those watching will be senior government officials. An estimated 200 officials at minister and vice-minister level are known to play the game regularly, sometimes with the many foreign diplomats based in Beijing.
From government department heads to executives, from housewives to schoolchildren, tennis in China is a sport for everyone. And with the China Open in the second year of a 10-year commitment to Beijing, it is a sport that is here to stay.