Graff eyeing global gains for China Open

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Lars Graff.

Lars Graff has pledged to help take the China Open's global profile to the next level after being officially unveiled as the Beijing event's new co-tournament director on Wednesday.

The Swede, who has been installed in a five-year deal, is well acquainted with the tournament having worked as a chair umpire for the men's final at its inaugural edition in 2004.

Thanks to a long and distinguished career with the ATP tour, Graff is proud to have established a close association with China, and in particular Beijing, over the years.

"After a quarter of a century with ATP, I felt it was time for another challenge in life," Graff, the current vice-president of officiating of the men's pro circuit, said in a Wednesday conference call.

"The China Open presents the perfect opportunity to change my roles and to happen at a tournament that was close to my heart over many years is quite special."

Graff has visited the Chinese capital multiple times to officiate the China Open and the 2008 Summer Olympics, bearing witness to the sport's growing popularity in the world's most populous nation.

"I suppose that the tournament must have valued my past work and wanted to capitalize on my experience from tournaments worldwide and my network within the tennis community," said Graff. "I always felt that my relationship with the China Open was special and being offered this opportunity indicates to me the feeling was mutual."

Boasting a 26-year career in pro tennis, mostly as a match official, Graff is regarded as one of the game's most eminent gold-badge chair umpires, who has officiated all of the ATP's top-level tournaments, several Olympic Games, the Davis Cup and the Grand Slams.

In 2012 Graff became the only chair umpire in the modern era to have officiated both the men's and women's singles finals at Wimbledon.

He retired as an umpire at the end of that season to pursue a career as an ATP administrator, starting in managerial roles and rising the ranks to become VP of officiating.

China Open tournament director Alfred Zhang Junhui said Graff's appointment can boost the event's global marketing reach.

"Lars' 20-plus years of experience in the tennis industry and extensive network are bound to be of great help to the future development of the China Open," Zhang said on Wednesday.

"Going forward he will focus on strengthening the international branding of the event, expanding player relations and improving player and tournament services, as well as supporting the improvement of the fan experience, sponsor development, marketing and promotion planning."

Graff is confident that his knowhow and wealth of networking resources can help the China Open further grow its international appeal and quality of play.

Having first become attuned to Chinese culture as a keen follower of the country's table tennis team in the 1990s, Graff stressed that the China Open should continue to build its identity as the tournament of the capital city.

"The most important thing is that it should not copy other tournaments," he said. "It should have its own soul. The background should always be the capital of China, Beijing, by using all the culture and history that Beijing has to offer."

Launched in 2004, the China Open now comprises the top-tier premier mandatory event on the WTA Tour and the 500-level ATP men's event, offering a total prize pool of over $11 million while rewarding the women's and men's winners with 1,000 and 500 ranking points respectively.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's China Open, originally scheduled for the fall, has been canceled. A total of 11 WTA and ATP events in China have been called off this year as part of a joint effort between the Chinese government and international governing bodies to help contain imported infections.

That gives Graff extra time to prepare for his debut in his new role, with the Swede eager to learn more about the structure of the event's organization, its financial operation and the preferences and expectations of Chinese fans.

Graff's appointment was warmly welcomed by colleagues from the sport's governing body.

"While Lars will be very much missed at the ATP, we are glad to know he is staying within the tennis family by taking up the position of co-tournament director of the China Open in Beijing," said Alison Lee, the ATP's executive vice-president.

"His knowledge and experience will complement Alfred and his team well. Together, I am confident they will grow the China Open into an even more successful tournament."

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