Mailbag: Tennis has strong ambitions for Asia, but hurdles may hurt growth
Never mind “Strong is Beautiful” or “It All Ends Here” or any of the other tennis slogans. The sport’s unofficial mantra is something to effect of “Asia is our growth market.” From the WTA holding its year-end extravaganza in Singapore to the spate of Chinese events to the satellite offices opening in Hong Kong, the sport is unabashed in its ambitions to colonize the East. Which makes all the sense in the world, so to speak. Hey, we may be losing market in the U.S., but we’re picking it up Shanghai. To borrow from Alphaville, we’re big in Japan.
But when we see events televised from Asia, it’s hard to overlook the -- how should we put this? -- modestly peopled stands. Manufacturers will quietly tell you that they’re not seeing the sales spike in China that they had anticipated five years ago. And it sure seems like Li Na was -- not unlike Yao Ming in NBA -- a lovely once-in-a-generation athlete, but not a harbinger of a wave of impending China stars.
As tour threaded its way through Asia last year, a few natives wrote in with unvarnished assessments. Reader LW Lee continues this tradition:
With all the empty seats for most of the ATP and WTA matches in Beijing and Shanghai, even for the top players, the tournaments must have lost a lot of money since they first began. Do you have any idea of how much? What is the breakdown among ATP, WTA, cities and Chinese Tennis Association regarding subsidies?
I've lived, traveled and worked in China at different times, played tennis in different areas and watched the spotty coverage of tennis on CCTV there - enough to think the three Chinese tennis journalists interviewed by SI gave the big city view of tennis in China, which is not most of China. I do agree that tennis interest there has grown markedly in the past decade, but without another huge Chinese star, they will be hard-pressed to make those big tournaments pay. Aside from Li Na, most Chinese (who live outside those major metro areas) would find it difficult to name other pro players and know nothing about the sport.
The major hurdles holding back tennis in China are generally true about sports participation there, as mentioned by one of the Chinese journalists:
1. Kids are not encouraged to play sports, and few parents do either. Schools have very few sports facilities and students spend their time studying to pass academic exams. Professional athletes are selected and trained by the government from early on. A Li Na story -- an independent athlete -- is an aberration there. I believe her career would've foundered had she not forged her own way.
2. Recreational sports competition is rare, indeed. There are exams galore, English speech contests, singing and dancing competitions. Chinese are very competitive in these, but if they play recreational sports at all, it's rarely to compete.
3. Tennis is an outdoor sport, at its roots. Air quality in most of China is at best, dubious -- at any time of year. Winter in much of China does not allow for outdoor play, either. There are very few indoor facilities.
4. Space is at a premium, especially in big Chinese cities. As far as I know, building tennis courts (for public use) is not a priority anywhere there. Badminton and ping pong are the big recreational sports -- they're cheap and don't require much space. Other sports may attract spectators, but not participants.
5. TV coverage of tennis tournaments is very spotty. As it is, CCTV there does not cover much besides Li Na, Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie and maybe Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Sharapova late in the Slams. Without Li Na, chances of big moves in TV any time soon are not good. Though wireless development has burgeoned, most people access the internet by cell phone -- and they're not using that to stream tennis.
6. Contrary to what one of the Chinese journalists said, for most Chinese, tennis is still a sport for richer, status-driven people. Most Chinese are not millionaires or even middle class. Of course incomes will continue to rise, but many still labor for a handful of dollars a day. When most still have never even seen a tennis court or held a tennis racquet, it's a big stretch to think tennis will be huge there any time in the near future. Neither the social or physical infrastructure is there.
The Roger Federer of old once again showed his stuff. Were you, like me, a little bit disappointed at the deportment of the Choker, Novak Djokovic? His head shaking and negative body language was almost a glimpse back to when he was on the edge of his breakthrough season a few years ago. I don't really think he will bee seen as the real No. 1 when he acts that way.
-- Patrick Kramer
• I think that’s too harsh by one standard deviation. But I agree with the larger point. That was an awful lot of sulking and self-defeating self-flagellation, especially for a big match and especially for a player who had beaten the opponent the last time they had played. What a strange year it's been for Djokovic. Objectively it's been unimpeachable. He’s ranked No. 1. He’s played deep into all four Majors. He won Wimbledon. If someone offered you this composite, you’d say: where do I sign up? Yet there have been a lot of bumps in the proverbial road (bubbles on the hard court?). Close matches lost. Fitness letting Djokovic down. (See: French Open final.) Some disappointing moments. Some absent losses. We’ve seen some of the lousy body language and strange results that characterized the 2008-10 years. Say this: if Djokovic doesn’t pull out that fifth set in the Wimbledon final -- and all credit to him for doing so -- this year is perceived much differently for him.
Incidentally, one of you asked on Twitter to name my MVP for 2014, and I think you have to go with Djokovic over Federer. He is ranked higher and obviously won one major to Federer’s zero. If Federer -- who will end the season with the most match wins on the ATP -- wins the World Tour Finals and helps the Swiss win Davis Cup? Well, we will have to revisit.
Two things, both Petra Kvitova-related:
1. As I write this, she is a finalist at the China Open in Beijing. Her re-emergence as a top-tier player has really gone unnoticed amongst all of the other happenings of the fall season. She's positioning herself to make a run to No. 1 in the early-2015 stretch with very little to defend.
2. What to make of the fact that she's ranked No. 3 and has, so far, beaten only one top ten player all season? (Eugenie Bouchard last week at Wuhan.) That seems bizarre.
-- John T., Cambridge, Mass.
• Kvitova is ranked No. 4 at the moment (No. 3 in the Road to Signapore), and, yes, if she stays healthy, she’s in a good position to continue her ascent in the winter and spring of 2015. Note that she lost in the first round of the 2014 Australian Open. But one reason her season has been played under low intensity lighting is that -- outside of Wimbledon -- it hasn't been a smashing season. She has all the talent in the world and those heavy, lefty strokes can be devastating, handcuffing opponents and pushing them back on their heels. Literally. Still, though, Kvitova doesn’t seem to realize just how good she can be
The recent phenomenon of older players finding success on the ATP tour also correlates to the abundance of fathers on the tour. Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Mikhail Youzhny, Gilles Simon, Lleyton Hewitt, Nikolay Davydenko, Janko Tipsarevic and Tommy Haas are all fathers, and Djokovic will soon join that club. Any other prominent tennis-playing fathers out there?
-- Nick, Lexington, KY
• Much props to much pops. The Bryans spring immediately to mind. For obvious reasons, we should probably be more impressed with the WTA players who manage maternity and a tennis career. But, yes, if success has many fathers, so too, does the ATP Tour.
I know it's a testament to Federer's popularity, but has any top player been more screwed by the scheduling at week-long tournaments than Federer? The first night match is tough, but getting the second night match is worse. We saw how it hurt him in Toronto and the same happened in Shanghai. I know someone has to play late and the tournament needs it to be a top player, but I'm getting sick of it always being Federer and it hurting him at the tail-end of tournaments.
-- Ida T.
• Obviously, Ida submitted her question before Federer triumphed. But her point is interesting. As the top drawing card, Federer routinely gets night matches, the prime-time session. When he has to play at night and then return the following afternoon, he is at a potential disadvantage.
This falls in my “meh” category of issues for two reasons. First, Federer has an awful lot of leverage. If he didn’t want to play at night, he has the “juice,” as the kids say, to request another time. Also, for all the times he is penalized for playing at night and then returning on short notice, how many other times does he benefit from playing in more benign conditions than his colleagues? Consider Cincinnati, when the heat and humidity that can be incapacitating and brutal during the day can vanish when the sun goes down. All in all, I say it's a wash. (And to Federer’s credit, you seldom hear him complain about this, one way or the other.)
I saw something a few weeks ago saying that Nadia Petrova might be retiring, but never saw anything official. Have we seen the last of Nadia on the WTA tour? Seems she hasn't played for quite a while.
-- Matthew, Manila, Philippines
• Funny, I saw something similar, which was basically the Russian Federation head speculating about the 32-year-old’s retirement. Not so, says her agent Monica Vila: “Nadia decided to take some personal time due to the tragic loss of her mother and the lingering hip injury she's been struggling with. It's quite sad that sometimes certain people take the liberty to make such allegations without having any solid evidence or knowledge of the truth.”
• This week’s book recommendation: “The Secrets of Spanish Tennis” by Chris Lewit.
• A new champion was crowned in men's Super Bowl singles action on Sunday, while familiar faces were victorious again in men's singles and on the women's side at the 2014 USTA/ITA National Small College Championships in Sumter, SC. Check here for a list of the winners.
• The ATP is planning a large-scale review of the circuit. If this puts regional tours back on the table, so much the better.
• The USTA announced the launch of the Australian Open Wild Card Challenge, which will utilize the USTA Pro Circuit to award wild cards into the 2015 Australian Open.
The American man and American woman who earn the most ATP World Tour and WTA ranking points at two of the three select USTA Pro Circuit hard-court events this fall will earn main draw wild cards into the 2015 Australian Open. Only Americans who did not earn direct entry into the Australian Open are eligible.
• The 2007 Australian Open runner-up Fernando Gonzalez will join Andy Roddick in making his Statoil Masters Tennis debut. Gonzalez, who won Olympic gold in the doubles in Athens 2004 and silver in singles in Beijing 2008, will take on Roddick, Tim Henman, Greg Rusedski, Mark Philippoussis and Thomas Enqvist in the ATP Champions Tour event in London.
• Rafael Nadal is tricking people again. This time, he’s bluffing on the golf course:
• Non tennis: here’s a piece we put together on homeless athletes.
• Helen of Philadelphia has LLS: Denis Istomin and Red Foo: