Sunday September 21st, 2014

WUHAN, China -- The WTA schedule may be grueling, but it’s fairly consistent and players are rarely required to book a flight to an unfamiliar location. Lower-level matches come and go, but the big tournaments have long-standing positions in the calendar: the four majors, the four Premier Mandatory tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing, and a host of Premier 5s in Rome, Doha, Canada, Cincinnati and, before this year, Tokyo.

On September 21, the WTA players experienced a shift in the schedule, as the inaugural Wuhan Open replaced the Pan Pacific Open as a Premier 5 tournament. So far, the players aren't entirely sure what to make of the new stop in the calendar. 

"I don't think a lot of players knew so much about Wuhan, but to come here and see a structure that's been simply built for an event like this, a global event with so many players participating, it's very impressive, I must say," said Maria Sharapova about the tournament.

Maria Sharapova signs autographs for ball boys ahead of the start of 2014 WTA Wuhan Open at Optical Valley International Tennis Center.
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Sharapova was stumped when she learned that such a big tournament would be hosted in Wuhan, the large city of 12 million people that serves as the capital of the Hubei province in central China.

"I think I had to Google the world map to find [Wuhan’s] location," she said. "But then I heard that it was Li Na's hometown so it made sense." 

That's the power of Li, whose success after becoming the first Asian player to win a major served as tennis' crowbar into the Chinese market. Held at the Optics Valley International Tennis Center -- a facility that didn't even exist 14 months ago -- this year's staging attracted nearly the entire top 20.

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Signs outside the stadium proclaim the Optics Valley as the Silicon Valley of China, as the city’s maiden tournament is sign of the times and raises questions about the future. The largest city in central China, Wuhan sits at the intersection of the Yangtze and Han rivers and serves as a major transportation hub. High speed rails to China's largest cities -- Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou -- run through Wuhan and the city is accessible by water from nine of China's provinces. Though considered a second-tier city behind its bigger, more widely known brothers, Wuhan has seen an explosion of recent growth. With the ambitious desire to catch up with Shanghai and become China's No. 2 city, Wuhan has undergone major redevelopment over the last few years, as the local government announced its intention last July to transform the city into a metropolis comparable to London or New York City. A second international airport is currently under construction and full-force urbanization is continuing, but the consequences of such rapid development are apparent in 2014. 

The Wuhan government had debt of more than $24.8 billion dollars by the end of June 2012, according to the Ministry of Finance, and China state-run news organizations report that the city will invest $329 billion in urban construction over the next five years. As funds were shut off, construction on a new freeway ceased and the city has scrambled to find new forms of investment, even selling the naming rights of a subway station to a private company before public uproar forced it to opt out. 

The first high-speed train between Zhengzhou and Wuhan runs into the Wuhan Railday Station in September 2012 in Wuhan. It reduces the time between cities from four and a half hours to just two.
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Which bring us to tennis. The Wuhan Sport Development and Investment Company has invested heavily in the Wuhan Open. Signs of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and all of the most notable WTA faces adorn the streets leading up to the tournament site for miles. The WSDI leased the tournament from Octagon and has a 15-year contract to run the event through 2028. While the site features a 5,000 seat main stadium this year, construction is already underway for a new stadium for next year. Want to know how badly Wuhan wants a seat at the table? The WSDI didn't want to play second fiddle to the Chinese National Tennis Center in Bejing, home of the more prestigious China Open. The new 15,000-seat stadium in Wuhan will have the same capacity as the main stadium in Beijing. It will also have a retractable roof. 

Questions have surfaced whether the tournament can sustain itself without Li: players may show up in force in the first staging of the tournament, but will they return?

"It's a tough section right now because you are in the States for like six weeks and then you go for home and you have just one week and then you have the last trip to Asia," Angelique Kerber said. "Of course it's different here than in Europe or America. For me it's important to stay healthy and be motivated for every single match and tournament because you know in your mind there's just a few tournaments left and then you can go on vacation and get a little bit of rest."

Fighting through a language barrier is never easy, but the ambition and desire to make the tournament worthy of its place in the calendar is evident. Players are impressed -- Madison Keys went so far as to say it was one of the best tournaments of the year. "I think the facilities are amazing," she said. "I think everyone's really helpful."

Eugenie Bouchard admitted the travel is tough, especially after playing through the majority of the season. "There's no Slam to look forward to at the end of the year,” she said. “People think the season is over but we're still grinding it out in Asia. Casual fans don't really pay attention that much."

The women share a laugh at the Wuhan Open player's party.
@FortyDeuceTwits/Twitter

​Wuhan’s place in the calendar is bolstered by the fact that the WTA Finals will be hosted in Singapore for at least the next five years. Serena has rarely played during this week in the calendar, opting to rest before heading to the mandatory China Open, which begins Sept. 27 in Beijing. Now that the WTA season will culminate in Asia, there's more incentive to make the most of the long flight to the Far East. 

"This is usually a free week for me," said Williams, who retired in her opening match in Wuhan, citing viral illness. "I'm usually never able to make it, but I wanted to really try to make it this year. It wasn't very easy, but I'm just going to do the best I can this week. It's a very long Asian schedule for me." 

The two-week gap between the China Open and the WTA Finals is already on the minds of the top players. For those chasing a qualifying spot for the WTA Finals, it may mean flying back to Europe to play an indoor tournament or two. For those who have qualified, it means a break that's just short enough to make a quick trip home risky. Sharapova plans to stay somewhere in Asia to prepare for the Finals. Petra Kvitova, who is on the verge of qualifying, plans to go back to Europe. After retiring on Tuesday, Williams is still undecided. "I'm still trying to figure it out between this week and next week and then two open weeks and then the Championships. So it's going to be a little tricky, but I'm going to try to figure it out,"​ she said.

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Serena Williams retires with illness at Wuhan Open

It is impossible to ignore the culture clash for players from the west. Food options remain a sticking point, as players are greeted by exotic dishes that they are simply not used to. Monday night’s party featured a whole roasted suckling pig on display. Chicken's feet, duck's necks and local dishes like doupi -- glutinous rice patties sandwiched between fried bean curd skins -- are a staple here in Wuhan. It can feel like an alien world, though that will change over time as players get more exposure. But for now, it continues to be a challenge.

"I'm not super picky but when I'm in Asia, I feel like I'm super picky," said Keys, who packed her own snacks during her first tour of duty in China last year, for no other reason than to have a taste of something familiar. "I swear I'm not super picky, but I'm not that adventurous."

Besides dining options, the players look for other ways to feel closer to home. “Just having normalcy through the season is a tough thing to find and wherever you can find it makes life easier," said CoCo Vandeweghe. “China is cut off from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and that only exacerbates the lack of comfort."

Some players rely on VPNs to access the Internet, and social media helps to keep them connected. "My phone bill will be extreme but I have to do my tweets and I need to know what's going on in the world or else I'm going to go crazy," Bouchard said, laughing.

"I think we've all just accepted it and embraced it," Keys said. "They just keep adding tournaments in China and this is just how it's going to be."

 

 

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