INSIDE STORY: Women's tennis could expand eastwards

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Spectacular: Wuhan Open's Optics Valley tennis centre.

The WTA 2016 season officially wraps up this week with the Elite Trophy Zhuhai, which is the eighth tournament on the women’s circuit that takes place in mainland China.

The tour’s expansion in the country had been high on the agenda of former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster, who was replaced a year ago by Steve Simon, and it resulted in a total of 10 events staged throughout the year across mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – two of which are quite significant in status.

Beijing hosts a $5.4m Premier Mandatory tournament (the second-highest tier just under the WTA Finals tour-ending championships), while the city of Wuhan is the venue for a $2.3m Premier 5 event (third-highest tier).

The Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open came to life in 2014, when the tour relocated a Premier 5 tournament from Tokyo to the Chinese city. It is owned by the sports and entertainment agency, Octagon, and was leased for 15 years to Wuhan Sports Development Investment Co.

Other Premier 5 events are hosted in major cities like Montreal/Toronto, Cincinnati, Dubai/ Doha, and Rome. When one thinks of a big city in China, Wuhan is not necessarily the first (or even 10th) name that springs to mind. So how, and why, did Wuhan end up staging such an important tennis tournament on the women’s tour?

The answer traces back to three things: Li Na, massive investment, and an ambition from the city itself to elevate its status within China as well as globally. Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province with a population of 10 million people, is the hometown of Li Na, Asia’s first and only singles grand slam champion.

When discussions started in 2012 between Octagon and the Wuhan municipal government, Li Na had just won her first slam, at the 2011 French Open, was ranked No 5 in the world, and was the second-highest paid female athlete on the planet.

Unfortunately for organisers, Li Na ended up retiring, due to recurring knee injuries, in September 2014, just before the start of the first edition of the Wuhan Open.

A total investment of $225million had been made into building the state-of-the art tennis facility, that includes a 15,000-seat centre court, in Wuhan’s developing Optics Valley area. They got the tournament and had built the facilities but there was no Li Na.

“When the discussion started in 2012, Li Na was an active player, at the top of the rankings and everybody envisioned to see her playing on home soil. The story ended up being different, and that’s fine, that’s the way it is, and it was obviously a big motivation,” co-tournament director Fabrice Chouquet told Sport360 at the Wuhan Open last month.

“Everybody knew that Li Na wasn’t going to play for another 10 years, so it’s also her legacy to have this event.”

In a way, parallels can be drawn between Wuhan hosting this event, and Dubai staging an ATP tournament for the first time back in 1993. Just like Dubai wanted to place itself on the world sports map and gain recognition across the globe through international tennis, Wuhan is attempting to achieve the same today.

“Having such a big event in Wuhan is a major development for the city. Through these sports events the city is growing its image, it’s more known around the world and tennis is a fantastic vehicle for that because you receive at this level of events an immediate worldwide exposure,” added Chouquet.

“It’s putting Wuhan in the elite group of cities who are hosting a major sports event and a major tennis event. The other Premier 5 events are cities like, either Toronto or Montreal, Rome, Doha or Dubai and Cincinnati, so they’re major cities in North America, Europe or the Middle East. So Wuhan gets into that club.

“It’s a branding exercise for the city and it’s a way to develop and get a new status within China as well. When you compare it with Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, all these cities that have significant status, Wuhan wants to raise its status to belong to that club as well.”

It is understandable that Wuhan still has a long way to go when it comes to attracting a big live audience. The tournament has only been around for three years, the stadium is located in a developing area that is far from the city centre, with the metro yet to reach it, and locals don’t necessarily have the tennis culture embedded in their DNA.

Chouquet admits that attendance is one of the biggest challenges the tournament faces.

“An event of that level with the size of the centre court that we have, we are very objective. We know that we’re not going to fill 15,000 seats at every session of this tournament, that would be unrealistic, it’s impossible. So we want to set reasonable objectives that we can achieve. We want to build the fanbase and it takes time,” said the Frenchman.

WTA CEO Steve Simon agrees that increasing the number of spectators in events like the Wuhan Open is tough.

“I think the education that we’re working with them on is getting them to take this from just a competition to it becoming an event and learning to not just copy what’s being done somewhere else – big stadium, big players, all of that – you’ve got to create the environment that the fans want to come.

“Many of these fans aren’t familiar with tennis, so we need to create all of the activities and experiences around the event that will bring them to it.”

For the time being, how much does the image of empty seats broadcast on TV hurt the WTA?

“Empty seats are never good. It’s a challenge every week because there’s many times where the event is actually very well-attended but they’re everywhere else out on the grounds, it’s the nature of tennis. It’s an ongoing issue that we have for sure,” said Simon.

“It’s not going away tomorrow, and with the exception of only a few events, I see a lot of empty seats and it isn’t a true reflection of what the attendance is as well. It’s something we have to figure out how to deal with. Some of it may be working with television and saying ‘okay, if the stadium is empty, why are you going to the high shot? Keep it tight on court, watch the tennis. Why are you going and showing me the beauty shot?’.”

Besides attendance, Chouquet says one of the main challenges moving forward would be to attract more international partners. With such a massive investment made into new events, breaking even, let alone making a profit “will take a few years that’s for sure” he admits.

“The city of Wuhan and this area of Optics Valley is a developing area, it’s like a new town sort of. In the city, there is construction all over the place, whether buildings, roads or public infrastructure. It’s a booming city, it’s just transforming, the slogan ‘Wuhan, different every day’ cannot be more true. The city has engaged into a programme of getting new infrastructure. So the city is investing in all these facilities and the return on investment will take a long time because the investment is massive,” he says.

One thing the tournament has been keen on is developing tennis within Wuhan and spreading the culture of the sport in the process. Li Na sparked a tennis revolution in China when she became a major champion and a quick look at the rankings shows there are four Chinese women in the top-100, 10 in the top-150, and 17 in the top-300.

The Wuhan Open runs several community initiatives like an amateur City League Club, that engages 3,000 players in 20 Chinese cities, with the finals of the league taking place on-site during the tournament. They also hold a competition for university students, who also get to showcase their talent on the sidelines of the Wuhan Open.

China’s top player at present, world No 28 Zhang Shuai, believes staging so many tournaments in her home country has helped her in many ways.

“A few years ago, I always played qualies at big tournaments, we didn’t have the chance to play big tournaments at home,” said Zhang. “Now we’re so lucky to be able to get some wildcards, some young players have the chance to play big tournaments. They can watch great players play. Before, it was tough to get points and tough to improve our rankings. Now we have a lot of tournaments and we can play. There are a lot of people coming to watch. I feel very lucky I’m still on tour to see this happening.”

With the WTA establishing itself strongly in the China marketplace, is the tour going to continue to expand in the region?

“One of the things that’s important to me is not to over-saturate the market,” said Simon. “I don’t believe in piling on. We’ve had a lot of success but I wouldn’t see myself adding more events to this market unless we can see that the event would enhance the values and the investments that are already being made here.

“I think that in all markets we could use more pathway events, in the development of talent for our future, investment in the future in developing markets, but not at the larger scale. So I want to respect the markets as well. But the balance to me is the key.”

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Down the Line: Murray vs Djokovic - Battle for World No1

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Murray and Djokovic are battling for top spot.

One event, two men, and a fight for the No1 ranking – that’s what we can look forward to this week at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris-Bercy.

Add to that the fact that seven players are still mathematically in contention for the remaining two ATP World Tour Finals spots in London and we could get one of the most exciting Paris Masters we’ve had in recent years.

Maybe it’s just me, but the word ‘exciting’ is not necessarily the word you’d typically associate with the Paris Masters. It’s so late in the season, with only one week separating it from the season finale at the O2 in London and so often you can expect high-profile early exits or withdrawals.

This year is different though with lots on the line for many of the players. Andy Murray, riding a 15-match winning streak, is a mere 415 points behind Novak Djokovic in the ATP Race to London and the Scot could leave Paris as the new world No1 for the first time in his career, having spent a total of 76 weeks in the No2 position.

Murray is carrying some incredible momentum, and has been the in-form player of the past six months. He has won his last three straight tournaments, in Beijing, Shanghai and Vienna, and is tied with Djokovic as the players with most titles captured in 2016, having each captured seven trophies. Djokovic on the other hand is title-less since Toronto in July, and has admitted to some mental fatigue and lack of motivation.

The way the Serb has described his current struggles, it almost sounds like he’s painting a bleaker picture than there actually is. He had personal problems that might have affected his early loss at Wimbledon, he won Toronto, had a terrible first-round draw in Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympics, lost a close one to Stan Wawrinka in the US Open final, then fell to a fired up Roberto Bautista Agut in the Shanghai semis. Add wrist and shoulder injuries to the situation and you’ll find that Djokovic is far from being in crisis-mode.

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Murray breathing down his neck in the rankings could actually fuel Djokovic’s desire in this home stretch of 2016. With no indoor matches under his belt, Djokovic opted to play doubles alongside his compatriot Nenad Zimonjic on Monday night in Paris (they lost to Halys/Mannarino), and he is clearly serious about his title defence in the French capital this week.

On his part, Murray is staying realistic about his chances of replacing Djokovic as No1.

“I can obviously try and win my matches, but even if I win all of my matches this week, I still might not get there,” the reigning Wimbledon champion told reporters in Paris on Monday.

“So it’s in Novak’s hands. He’s ahead obviously just now, so if he wins his matches and gets to the latter stages of the last two tournaments, then he’ll most likely keep the No1 spot.

“I don’t feel any differently now to how I did kind of six, eight weeks ago. My goal wasn’t to finish as No1 at the end of this year. I wanted to finish this year as strong as possible and I think there is a lot stronger chance of doing it in the early part of next year, which is what I targeted rather than this week.”

Meanwhile, a host of players are looking to join Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Gael Monfils in the elite-eighth season finale in London.

Contenders Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and freshly-crowned Basel champion Marin Cilic are all in the top half of the Paris draw while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Lucas Pouille and Roberto Bautista Agut are in the bottom.

If I had to pick two of those to play in London, I’d probably pick Pouille and Tsonga simply based on the fact that their style of play and flair would fit nicely with the atmosphere at the O2. Is three Frenchmen in London though too much for the tournament to handle? Who knows…

I would have gone for Thiem had this been a tournament in the first half of the season. The Austrian unfortunately mis-managed his schedule in 2016 and has run out of steam. This will no doubt prove a life lesson for him for the future.

Race to London:

Seven players can clinch one of the two remaining ATP Finals spots. Here’s how they can guarantee qualification:

Dominic Thiem – Must reach the Paris final
Marin Cilic – Must reach the Paris final
Tomas Berdych – Must win the title
David Goffin – Must win the title
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Roberto Bautista Agut – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way
Lucas Pouille – Must win the title and other players’ results must go his way

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#360view: 2016 has been the WTA's year

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Big win: Cibulkova's career-high so far.

The ball hit the tape of the net, bounced high up then landed on Angelique Kerber’s side to give Dominika Cibulkova a lucky break on her championship point that delivered the Slovak No7 seed the biggest title of her career.

Luck may have helped her out on the last point of the WTA Finals tournament, but it had little else to do with Cibulkova’s marvelous 2016, which she finishes at a career-high No5 ranking in the world.

After losing her first two round robin matches in Singapore to Angelique Kerber and Madison Keys, Cibulkova beat Simona Halep to squeeze into the semis, before defeating Svetlana Kuznetsova in the last-four and exacting her revenge on Kerber in the title decider.

Cibulkova spoiled two storylines in Singapore this week but ended up gifting us a remarkable one of her own.

With Kuznetsova pulling off a do-or-die title victory in Moscow and qualifying for Singapore just one day before the tournament started, the Russian making the final would have been a surreal and brilliant scenario. But WTA Finals debutante Cibulkova had other ideas as she knocked her out in the semi-finals.

A Kerber triumph in the season-closing championship would have capped a phenomenal year for the world No1 who won the Australian Open in January, made the Wimbledon final in July, took Olympic silver in August, and won the Australian Open in September. Winning Singapore would have been a fitting finale for the German, but again, Cibulkova thought differently.

For someone who was ranked as low as 66 in the rankings just eight months ago, and had Achilles’ surgery last year, Cibulkova has certainly been an example for perseverance in 2016. She seamlessly took her consistency from one surface to another, and ends the season with the second-most match wins on tour (53).

Kerber was considered the overwhelming favourite, having beaten Cibulkova in their last five consecutive meetings but if we’ve learned anything from the WTA this year, it’s to expect the unexpected. Maria Sharapova got suspended for committing an anti-doping violation, Victoria Azarenka got pregnant, Serena Williams played just eight tournaments all season and vacated her No1 spot, Karolina Pliskova and Cibulkova made their top-five debuts, Madison Keys and Johanna Konta entered the top-10 for the first time, Garbine Muguruza won her maiden grand slam title… the list goes on and on.

The WTA Finals gave us a sneak peek at what the women’s tour could possibly look like without Serena. Even though the American was not present in the tournament last year, this year, in Sharapova’s absence as well, things felt different in Singapore. The entire field felt closely bunched together in terms of competitiveness and almost every match was a toss-up.

A look at the season as a whole shows a degree of dominance and consistency from the top players. The slams were won by Kerber, Serena and Muguruza, the four Premier Mandatory tournaments were won by Victoria Azarenka, Halep and Radwanska, while the Premier 5s were won by Carla Suarez Navarro, Serena, Halep, Pliskova and Petra Kvitova.

With young players like Keys and Jelena Ostapenko making finals of Premier 5ss, and teenagers like Belinda Bencic and Naomi Osaka reaching finals at Premier tournaments, there’s been a very solid mix of dependability and unpredictability in 2016. Add to that the successful comebacks of the likes of Cibulkova and Caroline Wozniacki and you realise this year on the women’s circuit delivered, with interest.

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