Zhengzhou aces its upgrade

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Czech Kveta Peschke (left) and American Nicole Melichar pose with their doubles trophy in Zhengzhou. ZHENGZHOU OPEN

Mission accomplished, but brace yourselves for next year.

That was the message from organizers after the ICBC Credit Card Zhengzhou Open successfully completed its transformation into a WTA Premier 700 event.

On Sunday, the $1.5 million tournament got a champion worthy of its lofty status-top seed and world No 2 Karolina Pliskova, who defeated Petra Martic 6-3, 6-2 in the rain-delayed final.

Next year's winner will lift the trophy in more salubrious surroundings-a new state-of-the-art 5,000-seat stadium. But, for now, organizers were left to reflect on a job well done, given the event's face lift from 125K to Premier-level event was achieved in a relatively short time.

"We actually had only two months to prepare for the event," said tournament co-director Rong Chang'an. "We had a lot of help from partners to organize the tournament, but on the other hand, it's a tough job to coordinate all the different parties.

"Determination, great teamwork, experience and support, especially from the local government, were the key factors that made the impossible possible at the Zhengzhou Open. Still, there is a lot work to be done in the future."

Fellow director Morgan Menahem also breathed a sigh of satisfaction after the tournament went off without a hitch.

"It was truly a challenge, because we got the tournament location so late and we started late with everything," said Menahem.

"Everybody worked very hard and we came through what we have now. We've had challenges, but we wanted to produce a great experience for the players and they got it.

"We're still working to achieve more next year, and we are happy with what we have delivered this year."

Connecting with the local population in the capital of Henan province, a city of over 10 million, is also a major aim for organizers.

"The populous city has huge market potential for tennis," Rong said.

"We should meet local people's demand for tennis while also exploring the wider market. As the Zhengzhou Open has become a permanent fixture in the city, the tournament will be a treasure for future generations.

"With improved living standards in China, we're witnessing a growing demand for sports. It's great for the local people to watch such a high-level event in their hometown."

The Zhengzhou Open is now one of nine Chinese events on the WTA calendar, while the arrival of the WTA Finals in Shenzhen in October shows just how serious the tour is about expanding in the world's most populous nation.

"China is a key market for the WTA and we are pleased and honored to help bring this brand new WTA Premier event to the wonderful city of Zhengzhou," said Fabrice Chouquet, the tour's Asia-Pacific managing director.

New stadium

It's hoped a massive building and refurbishment project will give the tournament an even glitzier feel in the years to come.

"We didn't have the time to build the whole venue in one year. So the idea is to finish one court with over 5,000 seats next year," said Menahem.

"Once the 2020 tournament ends, we will start to build the rest and we will release the whole project in 2021.

"The aim of the tournament is to get more people interested in tennis in China, so we want more people in our stadium. If more people watch tennis, more can become interested and play themselves. If more people play tennis, more will come to our event. It's a circle."

While the likes of Pliskova, world No 3 Elina Svitolina and three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber were among the star attractions this year, adding more stellar names is a tricky prospect for organizers, given the tournament's scheduling at the start of the tour's Asian swing.

"It's a good week and it's a bad week," said Menahem. "It's a good week because it's right after the US Open and we're a couples of week away from the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Many players are chasing the points to qualify for that.

"It's a bad week because if a player has a deep run at the US Open, she is not likely to come here."

The tournament earned a resounding thumbs-up from this year's field.

"My first impressions were that the tennis center looks very big and I know they are trying to make it even bigger," said Svitolina.

"I'm excited. I saw that there's a good crowd coming to watch and the draw is quite tough."

World No 8 Kiki Bertens echoed those sentiments.

"My first impression of the city was very good," said the Dutch ace. "The on-site facilities are also good. There were people waiting for me at the airport and in the hotel. It's really a great setup.

"In total, I will play three events in China. I have a tournament planned in Japan next week, and then I play Wuhan and Beijing. It's really nice to be back here."

Home improvements

For the six Chinese players in the main draw, testing themselves against such top players could only be a positive-no matter what their level.

"This year I've played many tournaments and gained a lot of experience," said quarterfinalist Zheng Saisai, who won her first WTA title last month in California and was a women's doubles finalist at this year's French Open.

"I think I'm improving through all these different tournaments. The achievement I made this year is thanks to the team that has been helping and supporting me, including my trainers and therapists. I finally proved myself and hope I can have better performances in the future matches."

You Xiaodi was probably the proudest youngster in the field after giving 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko a major scare in the opening round.

"It's the first time I've played a WTA Premier main-draw match and the first time I encountered a Grand Slam winner," said You, who lost 6-3, 0-6, 6-2 to Osaka.

"I'm steadily improving this season and I just want to make more breakthroughs. The next step for me is to level up my ranking to 180 or so, then 150. I'll just try my best to go higher and higher."

Duan Yingying, Zheng's doubles partner, reckons it won't be too long before a Chinese player emerges to emulate Hall of Famer Li Na.

"The young Chinese players can now play all these high-level WTA tournaments in China, which was unthinkable when I started my career," said Duan. "Although we are still waiting for the next Chinese superstar, the overall strength of Chinese tennis has improved."

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