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Wednesday, 28 September 2016 17:36 PM BST
Wuhan looking to make its mark
A growing tournament on the WTA Tour, looks at the ambitions of the Wuhan Open. READ MORE

At the risk of sounding jaded, life on the tennis circuit can be a little repetitive: one hotel room looks very much like another, one airport arrivals hall can be just as depressing as another (particularly if your luggage is sitting forlornly on a carousel in a completely different city) and, for the players, one practice court has all the novelty value of the court left behind at the last tournament.

And then there is tennis in China. More specifically, there is tennis in Wuhan at the poetically named Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open. Tennis here is decidedly different. It looks different, it smells different and it even tastes different. The food here is not the Chinese food you eat at home (no matter where your home may be); that is no to say that it is better or worse – it is just different. And Wuhan is, apparently, famous for its spiced duck necks.

As for the language, be it Mandarin or Cantonese, it bears no resemblance to any of the languages spoken on the regular beat of the tour. Then again, those who organise the events in China must think the same about the rest of the tour – how come no one from North and South America, Australasia or Europe knows a word of Mandarin? After all, it is not like China is a small country with no place in the global economy. But beyond learning ‘ni hao’ (it means hello) when people first arrive, few venture outside that comfort zone. There is a lot of pointing and arm waving that goes on in the shops and restaurants around the player and media hotels round these parts.

No, China is, in many ways, another world.

But Wuhan wants to make its mark both here in Asia and in the huge global market of the WTA Tour. The Wuhan Open is a Premier 5 event and, as such, must have seven of the world’s top 10 on show. Yet until Serena Williams withdrew due to a shoulder injury, the tournament had easily secured the services of every member of the top 10. The place clearly has pulling power.

Where most tennis tournaments start slowly and build up a reputation and a fan base as the years go by, Wuhan started with a bang and has been making a lot of noise ever since. Opening in 2014 with an impressive 5,000-seater stadium and a heap of outside courts and practise facilities, it immediately redeveloped and refurbished for its second year of operation. Last year saw the opening of the new centre court, all $150million and 15,000 seats of it (with a retractable roof) and to date, the city has invested a total of $225million in the site.

From the outside, the centre court looks a little like Beijing’s Olympic showpiece, the Bird’s Nest, while the interior feels more like Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena. It dominates the horizon while the original centre court has now become the No.1 Court and there are four further match courts plus five practice courts (although there is another show court and another 11 practice courts which are not used during the tournament this year). And all of that is housed on a site stretching out over more than 33 acres. By way of a comparison, Roland Garros covers 21 acres and Wimbledon covers 42 acres, but that includes the car parks. Wuhan, then, is big business.

But unlike some vast sports complexes that spend most of the year in mothballs waiting for the next event to begin, the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre is at the centre of a huge building project funded by the city. Having secured a 15-year lease on the tournament week – there are 12 left to run – Wuhan is expanding eastwards with the tennis at the heart of the development.

There are plans for a hotel and shopping mall to be built on the site together with a new metro line to link the new businesses with the rest of the city. And like Melbourne Park in Australia, the Wuhan site will be used for other sports events, for concerts and exhibitions and already the place hosts an ITF 50k event and is the home venue for a city club league and a college league. The city that produced Li Na seems determined to find another grand slam winner in the not-too-distant future.

Then there is the social and commercial side of the development plans. The 800 volunteers who populate the site cannot do enough to help (this morning’s request for directions to the coffee machine elicited the smiling response of eight willing helpers to explain the location of the coffee maker, explain the procedure for ordering the coffee and then take the weary hack to the machine and put the order in for her. Surprisingly, no one volunteered to drink it for me. But they would have had I asked).

These young men and women with their limitless patience are all university students and while a week at the tennis breaks up the grind of lectures and study, it is the chance to meet and mix with elite international athletes, foreign businessmen and women, journalists from around the world and the raft of professionals who travel the world with the tour that gives them invaluable experience. Wuhan is in central China and unlike Shanghai and Beijing, it does not have a long history of international trade and ex-pat communities shaping the local community; with the arrival of the Wuhan Open, the students are making up for lost time.

But it is all still different. Very different. The trick, as Johanna Konta had learned, is to embrace those differences and soak up the experience.

“You come to Asia with the foresight of you are going face certain challenges which are a given,” she said. “It may be the food, it may be the language barrier – there are going to be certain things that are not as easy as if maybe you were in the US, but then you look forward to the good things and you do appreciate the good things.

“I always do enjoy coming here because I know the hotels are always world class, the facilities – they always are magnificent, they really are great. They try really hard here, they really do; they work really hard to put on a great event so you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that. As you can see, they do a good job.”

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