Advantage China as WTA Finals arrive

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WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon (C) and other guests attends a media conference in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, to announce new sponsors for the WTA Finals on Wednesday. [Photo provided to]

The WTA Finals' new 10-year commitment to Shenzhen heralds a new era for tennis in China, according to women's tour boss Steve Simon.

With 100 days to go before the year-ending tournament swings into action at Shenzhen Bay Sports Center (Oct 27-Nov 3), Simon declared the residency a game-changer for the sport here.

"What happens here this year and what will happen 10 years from now, you will see a completely different event, as well as greater interest in the game as it evolves to a level we haven't seen before," Simon told China Daily on Wednesday at a media conference to announce new sponsors for the event.

Having hosted a lesser-rated WTA event for the past seven years, Shenzhen won the bid last year to stage the Finals, where the top eight singles stars and doubles teams will battle it out in a round-robin format followed by semifinals and finals.

A record annual prize pool of $14 million-twice the amount of the 2018 edition in Singapore-will be up for grabs through 2028.

If the singles champion wins all her matches (three group-stage and two knockout contests), she will pocket a total purse of $4.725 million-the largest winner's check in professional tennis, surpassing the $3.8 million prize for the male champion at the US Open.

China's commercial allure is undoubtedly a big factor in the WTA's growing presence here, but Simon attributed the nation's rise to prominence on the tour to the sport's fast-improving profile here.

"The region is committed to growing the game here," said Simon, the WTA's chairman and CEO.

"I believe to bring the final to China and ending the year here, it validates the investment the region has made in the sport."

Since trailblazing star Li Na retired in 2014, China's tennis boom that was driven by her two Grand Slam singles titles (2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open) hasn't shown any sign of slowing down-even with no would-be successors advancing beyond a major quarterfinal.

There have been some encouraging signs of late, however.

World No 35 Zhang Shuai enjoyed a personal-best quarterfinal run at Wimbledon last week, top ace Wang Qiang was in back-to-back semifinals at the premier Wuhan Open and China Open last fall, and teenager Wang Xiyu was crowned junior champ at the 2018 US Open.

More WTA events being held in China is helping the nation's players acclimatize to competing in the majors, according to Zhang.

"I think it definitely helps a lot if we can play more at home rather than having to travel very much like I did at the beginning of my career," said 30-year-old Zhang, a late bloomer who had fallen at the first round 14 times at Grand Slams before her quarterfinal run at the 2016 Australian Open. "Playing on the home court we feel more comfortable and more confident.

"The younger generation has a great advantage in having more access to high-level tournaments than we had before."

Including the Finals and the upgraded Zhengzhou Open (from 125K series to Premier 700), the Chinese mainland now hosts 10 WTA tournaments, almost 20 percent of the tour's total.

Six of them, including the Premier 5 in Wuhan and Premier Mandatory in Beijing, are scheduled within a month after the US Open, forming a busy run on the calendar that's been dubbed the 'China Swing.'

However, the increasing number of events in Asia, straight after the year's final Slam has irked some Western players.

Outspoken American ace Coco Vandeweghe has described the China Swing as "the toughest part of the year that makes people exhausted".

Simon, however, is looking at the bigger picture-producing a more geographically diverse spread of champions from around the world.

"You see the number of Chinese players that are playing at the WTA level growing every year," he said.

"You've seen the number of academies such as (Shenzhen Finals organizer) Gemdale Sports' clinics growing throughout the country.

"All of that is going to lead to producing more Li Nas. I think the goal here over the next 10 years is to have a couple of Chinese singles players qualifying for the Finals in Shenzhen."

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