Still plenty to cheer about
Even with a string of withdrawals dulling some of tournament’s luster, the appeal of the China Open for the world’s elite players underlines the growth of tennis here.
Asia’s largest men’s and women’s combined tournament kicked off its main draw at the National Tennis Center in Beijing on the weekend, but injuries and fatigue at the end of a long season accounted for some high-profile absences from what was supposed to be a glittering cast.
Among the missing on the women’s side are 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams and Russian star Maria Sharapova, while the late withdrawals of Andy Murray and world No 1 Rafael Nadal tightened the men’s ranks.
Still, visitors swarmed to the NTC on Sunday to enjoy not just the games, but a variety of carnival events ahead of the National Day holidays.
“It’s true that the field is not as strong as last year, but late-season withdrawals happen everywhere in the world,” said China Open tournament director Alfred Zhang.
“The competition is not the only reason why fans come to enjoy themselves here. It’s part of their holiday routine to come to our event to spend some quality time with family and friends.”
Established in 2004, the China Open women’s tournament was upgraded to one of four WTA crown jewel events in 2009 and has since attracted the world’s top 50 to compete for the winner’s 1000 ranking points and the lion’s share of $7.64 million.
“Of course it’s a big tournament … but on the other side it’s a little bit different world from my country. Tennis is a completely new tradition here,” German world No 3 Angelique Kerber said before her opening match against Kristina Mladenovic of France on Sunday.
“It’s always great coming back to China, especially Beijing, where you can see a lot of new things besides tennis,” said the 30-year-old lefty, who needed just 72 minutes to thrash Mladenovic 6-2, 6-2.
With the season-ending WTA Championships immediately following the China Open, some young and ambitious stars have embraced the Beijing event as their last chance to qualify for the Singapore showcase.
Czech ace Karolina Pliskova said the ranking points and fat purse in Beijing provide a strong incentive.
“At this time of the season it’s tough for everybody to fly a long way to Asia,” said the 26-year-old world No 7. “But it’s the last big one of the season and obviously we all need the points for Singapore. Knowing there are no more tournaments coming up, you can put everything into it and enjoy a little bit more tennis.”
In the absence of Murray, Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro has been pegged atop the men’s 32-seed main draw.
The Argentine and Chinese women’s player Zhang Shuai entertained a group of children at a charity clinic on Saturday, where he received a warm welcome from fans ahead of his second appearance in Beijing.
Although hampered by nagging injuries to both wrists from 2014-16, the bigserving del Potro enjoys huge popularity in China.
“I’m here living probably the best moments of my career,” said the 29-year-old, who has climbed to No 4 after dropping out of the world’s top 1000 in early 2016. “The people are so happy to watch me playing tennis again, and that’s what I love.”
To make the Beijing experience special off the court, China Open organizers took German second seed Alexander Zverev and doubles specialist Marcelo Melo of Brazil to downtown Ditan Park on Friday morning to experience the exercise routine of local residents.
Zverev, last year’s semifinalist in Beijing, said learning some traditional Chinese tai chi moves from a local practitioner was a terrific experience.
“It’s very interesting; you don’t get to see that a lot,” said 21-year-old. “My technique is not quite there yet, but I’m a fast learner. I really enjoy tai chi. It’s probably the most fun activity that I’ve done this year.”