Denis Green | Tennis eyes a return to golden years in China

Denis Green, head of communications at Mailman Group, sees a bright future for tennis in China as the country welcomes back ATP and WTA tournaments.

Denis Green, Mailman

Bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. Years of cancelled or postponed tournaments and negative headlines in China have shrouded tennis in recent times, but that looks to be changing as the world’s most prestigious players and tournaments return to the mainland, including China’s latest crop of extremely talented youngsters.

The Rolex Shanghai Masters – an ATP Masters 1000 tournament – has been announced for October, including an increased number of participants, more prize money, and more days of tennis. Also making a return are ATP events in Chengdu and Zhuhai, as well as the China Open in Beijing; several International Tennis Federation tournaments from June onwards; and last but not least, the WTA’s dramatic U-turn by announcing its tournaments will return to China following an extended boycott of the region.

Local sponsors and broadcasters are gearing up for the sport’s return to a nation eager to get back to the glory years of Li Na, and a raft of new sponsorship and media rights deals have been settled following China’s abrupt border opening in January. While the opening was too abrupt for some other sports, tennis’s bet on China might just pay off.

The forgotten years

Since Li Na lifted the Australian Open trophy in 2014, Chinese tennis hasn’t had too much to cheer about on and off the court. A lack of investment at grassroots, money thrown at other sports at the wrong end of the pyramid, Covid-19 complications, and the situation surrounding Peng Shuai have presented challenges to the sport. Tennis is also competing with sports ingrained in Chinese culture, namely table tennis and badminton, which both have a lower barrier to entry, are more easily accessible, and have larger fan bases.

And then there’s Chinese tennis players such as Baoluo Zheng, a victim of China’s ongoing crackdown on corruption that has hit sports such as football and snooker extremely hard.

Practising and playing tennis also comes at a cost in China. Courts are hard to find and when found, cost more than most individual and team sports, excluding the likes of golf and equestrian.

The future’s bright

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Participation is on the rise and more people are watching the sport. State-of-the-art youth academies are opening, investment is increasing and, most importantly, China has a crop of male and female youngsters set to challenge the very best players in the world.

As with many sports in China, women have generally performed better than their male counterparts, and tennis is no different. Li Na, Peng Shuai, Zhang Shuai to name a few have all been successful, taking the glory whilst the men struggled. But the tennis talent balance beam is starting to level out.

Male hotshots Yibing Wu, Jerry Shang, and Zhang Zhizhen have made names for themselves on the global tennis circuit in recent years. Wu was the first male to reach a Grand Slam tournament in 67 years, and then became the first Chinese male ever to win an ATP title in the Open era, claiming the Dallas Open in February.

Wu initially won the boys’ singles title at the 2017 US Open, where he also claimed the boys’ doubles with Chinese Taipei’s Hsu Yu-hsiou, making him China’s first male junior Grand Slam champion.

As for Shang, he was the first Chinese male to win a match at the Australian Open in the Open Era, and was the first 17-year-old to win a men’s singles match at a Grand Slam since the World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in 2021. This is getting more youngsters interested in the sport, and more sponsors investing in tennis.

Sponsorship spree

An increasing number of Chinese brands are building relationships with major tennis tournaments to gain more global awareness and enhance their brand equity. These brands see the blue-chip tournaments as an important vehicle to grow their presence not only overseas, but also to build more trust and familiarity with local fans watching back home. Chinese fans take pride in seeing homegrown brands being plastered across billboards and advertisements on the world’s biggest tennis stages.

Chinese brands which have gone big with Grand Slams and ATP 1000 tournaments include consumer electronics company Oppo (Roland-Garros and Wimbledon); liquor distrillery Luzhou Laojiao (Australian Open); and bottled water brand Ganten (Rolex Shanghai Masters and China Open).

It’s not only tournaments where Chinese brands are gaining exposure, as local players have become increasingly sought after following their rise up the rankings. Yibing Wu is sponsored by dairy brand Satine, while the talented Qinwen Zheng is the face of mega dairy brand Yili and Alibaba’s financial arm Ant Group. Even international stars such as men’s world #4 Daniil Medvedev has had a long-running partnership with Luzhou Laojiao.

As for media rights, in a deflated China market, Shinai Sports, owner of iQiyi Sports, has positioned itself as the home of tennis. The platform holds digital media rights, exclusive or non-exclusive, for all four Grand Slams. State-owned broadcaster CCTV holds linear broadcast rights to the four Grand Slams. According to official data from Roland-Garros, viewership on CCTV5 reached 102m for the tournament in 2022, a 21 per cent rise compared to 2021.

Academic impetus

The Chinese government identified tennis as a priority sport for development and has been investing heavily in infrastructure, coaching, and player development, and the country has multiple standout academies. These include the Tennis Academy of China – the only national-level specialised tennis academy – Potter’s Wheel in Beijing, led by Li Na’s former coach Carlos Rodriguez, claiming over 65k youngsters attending the academy every year; while Gemdale, the property giant which acquired the rights to operate the WTA Finals from 2019 to 2028 in Shenzhen, owns the Gemdale International Tennis Academy in Shenzhen, one of the most impressive academies in China.

In addition, renowned sports education company PacificPine Sports recently signed a partnership with the ATP Tour to create a range of world-class ATP-licensed tennis centres in mainland China and Hong Kong. The multi-year partnership, which began this year, will help the ATP to engage with junior tennis players and young fans locally, expand opportunities in the sport, and for ATP Coach members to share their expert knowledge with players in the region.

As fitness and health remain high on the Chinese government’s policy agenda, getting more youngsters playing sports such as tennis are of paramount importance. These academies play a crucial part in encouraging youngsters to play more tennis, and they have more time to play following recent crackdowns on time spent online gaming and the double reduction policy to reduce after-school classes.

Tennis’ time to shine

The next decade will be a defining one for tennis in China, and it starts now. The highly anticipated Rolex Shanghai Masters will be the highlight of a busy 2023 calendar, with heightened focus and pressure on the country’s young talented stars.

Opposed to football, the money is being invested in the right areas of the pyramid and the results are there as proof. No longer do Chinese tennis fans or young talented players need to merely dream of reaching Grand Slams, lifting ATP titles, or welcoming star players back to the courts of China. It’s a reality.

The glory years of Chinese players winning trophies and tennis arenas packed out in China are returning following a tough period for the sport. Keep your eyes on what the country is set to achieve in tennis this year and beyond. Following years of bumpy roads, tennis is China looks set to reach a beautiful place once again.

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