China Devotes Itself to the Yellow Ball

In a land where the main racket sport involves a table and paddles, and star pingpong athletes are treated like demigods, China now aims to dominate tennis on grass, clay and hard courts.

During the U.S. Open tennis grand slam in New York, a Chinese delegation unveiled the $200 million futuristic Qi Zhong tennis complex in Shanghai for the international tennis tournament, the Masters Cup, in November. Although no Chinese player graces the Top 10 rankings on the men's or women's side, many experts say it's only a matter of years before China sweeps tennis trophies, especially with the country's push to join the country club set and to get everyone whacking a yellow ball.

Trading Up: Tennis Racquet vs. Pingpong Paddle

Tennis, popular with China's nouveau riche and the Politburo but still relatively unknown in the countryside, has lobbed to the front of the government's priority list as China raises its sporting profile ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Tennis' organizing body for men, the Association of Tennis Professionals, couldn't be happier. China not only has cash to spend but its booming population represents a grand slam of potential recreational players that could propel tennis' popularity to the stratosphere.

"The Qi Zhong stadium is a new generation of tennis facility which will create even more commitment and interest in the Tennis Masters Cup around the world," said Jiang Lan, secretary general of the Tennis Masters Cup organizing committee.

The weeklong tournament caps off each season by gathering the top eight ranked male players to duke it out in singles and doubles play. Shanghai will host the tournament for the next two years.

After a video presentation of the 15,000-seat, eight-piece, sliding, magnolia-shaped glass roof, Jiang said that upon full completion, the center would be Asia's largest tennis facility, with 40 indoor and outdoor courts. Work has started on the 200-acre sports complex, which will become a place to develop Chinese equivalents of Lindsay Davenport and Roger Federer, according to Jiang.

"It is through efforts like that, that we hope to develop a Yao Ming of tennis," he said, referring to the Chinese superstar who slam-dunked his way into the NBA.

Tennis expert Bud Collins agrees.

"It's only a question of time before the Chinese develop good players," said Collins. Collins explained that money did the talking in securing a major tournament in a place that has a short tennis history.

Tapping Future Tennis Wannabes

So short, in fact, that ATP's chief executive officer Mark Miles likened one of the first major tennis tournaments in mainland China to a movie being badly dubbed.

"They [Chinese audiences] wanted to see the sport but it was like the soundtrack on the video was out of sync, they would applaud sort of during the match or just in the middle of an overhead," Miles said of a 1993 Shanghai tournament.

Tennis nonetheless grew. As China's economy revved up, leisure time and padded wallets meant more Chinese could pursue Western-style pursuits like golf and tennis.

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