Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am

As the grand slam curtain is about to fall for another year at the US Open, the action is just getting started for Asian tennis fans. Over the next five weeks, Asia will host a staggering 11 frontline tournaments across six countries - five ATP events and six on the WTA circuit - beginning with the Guangzhou International Women's Open, which starts tomorrow.

Later this month, the neighbouring nations of Malaysia and Thailand will stage duelling men's championships.

And Japanese fans will see three tournaments in three weeks - two of them women's events - between September 28 and October 18.

The undisputed success of the ATP World Tour Finals in Shanghai over the past four years has got tennis bosses fired up about the potential of the world's fastest growing sports market. And they've apparently reacted to earlier predictions that the global recession would ease quickest here by stacking their calendars with Asian dates.

This year, the season-ending event has moved to London but the Paris of the East has been rewarded with the Shanghai ATP Masters 1000 from October 12: the only one of the nine so-called 1000 events - the most important tennis after the grand slams - to be held outside Europe and North America. The number 1000 refers to the ranking points earned by the champion.

In an apparent shifting of the tennis world order, Shanghai replaces Hamburg as a top-tier event next month and takes over the spot once held on the calendar by Madrid at the end of an expanded Asian 'swing'.

But the selection of Kuala Lumpur as a new ATP stop in the same week as the Bangkok tournament from September 28 has raised eyebrows. It means as Rafael Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marat Safin enjoy tom yum in Thailand, Fernando Verdasco, Gael Monfils and Lleyton Hewitt could be sampling spicy nasi lemak - a Malaysian staple - across the border.

Both are 250 events, played on indoor hardcourts, but Kuala Lumpur - with US$850,000 prizemoney compared to US$608,500 in Bangkok - is offering a stronger financial incentive. The Malaysian capital gets the nod over three unnamed rival cities after successfully holding some high-profile exhibitions in recent years, including Roger Federer against Pete Sampras in 2007, and following a strong political push, with the tournament launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Malaysian Open tournament director Nick Freyer says he doesn't believe the ATP is spreading itself too thinly by staging two nearby events at the same time.

'If you had different tournaments in Hong Kong and Macau in the same week, it wouldn't make sense,' Freyer said. 'But with the huge populations of Malaysia and Thailand and the bordering countries, the region can easily handle it.'

In the space of seven days, Southeast Asia's only two big men's tournaments for 2009 will come and go. And after five events in 20 days of frenetic activity, Asian fans will have to wait another 11 months for the next visit of the ATP circus, apart from stops in distant Doha, Chennai and then Dubai early in the new year.

It's an approach born out of geographical necessity, with the tennis calendar shaped around faraway grand slams in January, May, June-July and August-September. But for long-term development, there's no question that if Asian tournaments were spaced out more evenly over the season, they would have a more lasting effect on the growth of tennis at grass-roots level.

'You wouldn't get the players for a one-off event at a different time of the year: they just wouldn't travel so far for it,' Freyer said.

While Li Na's impressive showing at Flushing Meadows is further proof of the progress made by Asian women, the region's male players continue to struggle, with only Taiwan's Lu Yen-tsuen (71) and Japan's Kei Nishikoro (98) inside the top 100 in the rankings.

Kuala Lumpur, which last hosted the ATP in 1995, is more a squash and badminton stronghold and may struggle to fill the 16,000-seat Putra Indoor Stadium. But organisers are coming up with catchy, non-tennis attractions to attract fans, including giveaways.

The tournament is being dubbed as Malaysia's biggest annual international indoor sporting event and the country's second largest behind the Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang.

Once again, a more mature tennis market like Hong Kong is left without an official event.

'I think it's sad that Hong Kong regards itself as the central finance hub and the sporting event capital of Asia yet cannot pull together a showcase ATP tournament when the rest of Asia has a plethora of them,' said Mark Kratzmann, the former Australian Davis Cup player and ex-Hong Kong club coach.

The scheduling might not be perfect, but the ATP and WTA have got one thing right: the more that local juniors are exposed to top-level tennis, the greater the likelihood of an Asian grand slam champion that would take the sport to unprecedented levels of popularity.