Olympic venue to host 'crown jewel' of WTA in 2009

2008/12/19 16:48
Olympic venue to host 'crown jewel' of WTA in 2009

  The Bird's Nest has become a 50-yuan-a-ticket tourist trap. The Water Cube hosts daily concerts. Now one more Olympic venue seems destined to escape becoming a notorious white elephant of misuse in the wake of the Beijing Games.

  The Beijing Olympic Green Tennis Center, which resembles either a bowl of rice, a blossoming lotus or a flying saucer depending on your vantage point, will host the China Open next year from Oct 1 to 11 to put some glitz and glamour back into the game.

  "After the Olympic Games, the utilization of all stadiums and manpower has become a long-term strategy to grow Beijing as a sports center, with tennis becoming a core strategy for this city," said Sun Kanglin, director of the Beijing Sports Bureau.

  The 10-court venue, which was purpose-built for the Aug 8-24 Games and features space-age air-cooling technology for spectators, was supposed to host this year's tournament but was unable to transition in time due to the proximity of the Paralympics and high costs.

  Now, with memories of China's historic Olympic success at the stadium still permeating the local consciousness, the stage is set for next year's event, which comprises two tournaments: the WTA and ATP 500 Series.

  The $4.5 million women's tournament is one of four crown-jewel events next year - including two in the US and one in Madrid - as the WTA streamlines its calendar but still keeps space for other top Asia-Pacific stops in Tokyo, Sydney, Doha and Dubai.

  Beijing, which opened a new regional WTA office in July spearheaded by the Tour's chief operating officer, David Shoemaker, was named one of 10 cities to win the coveted ATP 500 Series, which is secondary only to the Master Series in terms of prestige.

  This can only be good news for the fledgling China Open as it approaches its fifth year of business. The Beijing sports authority has announced a post-Olympic budget of 500 million yuan ($62.5 million) to host international tournaments - and the WTA event tops the list.

  "The partnership between the Tour, Beijing municipal government and Beijing sports society creates a great foundation to extend to wider audiences as we work together to develop tennis in Beijing and all of China," said Sun.

  Shoemaker said he hoped the China Open would spur social change among women in China.

  "The fact our top players play here sends a very strong and powerful signal about the progressiveness of some of those places that I think is inspiring social change," he said.

  Beijing outbid Dubai, Tokyo and Bangkok to become one of just four cities to host the elite event, which makes it mandatory for the world's top 50 female players. The top 10 players will be subject to severe penalties if they withdraw without good reason.

  Meanwhile, the world's best male players must participate in four of the year's 10 ATP 500 Series including at least one after the US Open in August, which gives them a choice of either Beijing, Tokyo, Basel (Switzerland) or Valencia (Spain).

  Tennis focus

  Chinese tennis players have been making impressive breakthroughs in singles and doubles events in recent years, characterized by world No 23 Li Na, who became the first Chinese to reach the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam. Her compatriot Zheng Jie, ranked world No 25, made another step forward by making the Wimbledon Open semifinals early this year.

  Zheng is also a two-time Grand Slam doubles winner with Yan Zi.

  After winning the (women's) doubles gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games, China clinched a bronze in the same event and an historic fourth place in the women's singles tournament by Li.

  "Beijing will be our primary focus in Asia," Shoemaker said. "I think it is the best time to bring the (WTA) tournament to Beijing. Women's tennis is in its prime now. The popularity has never been higher; the prize money is on the highest level. With the increasing support from our global and local sponsors, the sport can get even stronger."

  China Open organizers said they are intent on building a solid and influential brand based on top quality play.

  "The goal is to make it the leading and exemplary event for Beijing and a bright spot for the sustainable development of the sports industry in Beijing after the Olympics," said Sun.

  This triggered a date change from September to one month later to coincide with a national holiday. Renovations are also under way to complete the makeover from Olympic venue to commercial enterprise, with exclusive zones for players and sponsors to be set up in addition to VIP rooms.

  "Off the court, we are also fighting with other cities regarding how we can offer the best services to players," said Sun. "Unlike the Beijing Games, we have to offer individual rest rooms and dressing rooms.

  "All such details must be taken into consideration if we want to host a traditional and prestigious tennis event."