Beijing boasts bigger is better

BEIJING -- Shorter season. Less demanding schedule.

Those are two of the main cries that recently have surfaced from the top men players, who have gone so far as to talk starting a union. In a bow to irony: Many of today's players are barely old enough to remember that before the ATP took over control of the worldwide tour in 1990, it was the player's union.

The likelihood that the calendar should be curtailed by chopping the post-U.S. Open schedule is fairly slim. Beyond the top 10, the players are thrilled to have more weeks to ply their trade and enhance their bank accounts.

However, if there ends up being any schedule reduction, you can bet all the dim sum dumplings in China that the ATP won't be shedding its post-U.S. Open Asian swing in Beijing and Shanghai.


China is investing fistfuls of money into tennis, and it's unlikely anyone will discourage those future funds.

"China is the largest growth economy in the world, so it's a great platform here for men's professional tennis," said Brad Drewett, the ATP CEO, International Group and a candidate to become the next ATP executive chairman and president when Adam Helfant vacates the position at year's end.

"It's been incredible the growth of tennis the last years in China."

The Chinese culture has easily adopted the long-held American belief that bigger is better. They also seem to subscribe to the "Field of Dreams" theory that if you build it, they will come.

The Beijing-based China Open -- a $6.7 million combined men's ATP and women's WTA tournament that took place last week -- occupies the expansive 2008 site of the Beijing Olympic Tennis Green in which a state-of-the-art, 10,000-seat retractable-roof stadium known as "The Lotus" was constructed.

Although the existing Lotus stadium meets the needs of the tournament, a new 15,000-seat national tennis stadium shaped in a cut-diamond debuted last week. It's also resplendent with a convertible roof -- a nod to the hope of more Chinese tennis fans in the future. There's no official word on how much the new stadium cost -- it was built by the government and is rented out by the tournament -- but a rumored figure of around $78-million USD keeps surfacing.

Thus far, fans aren't packing the place by 15,000 strong yet. It's worth noting that tennis interest is relatively young with only a decade or so history in China. The positive is that China's current tennis fans are not yet jaded to the point that they demand nothing less than seeing the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

On a somewhat chilly Friday night, the smallish, enthusiastic crowd at the China Open didn't seem to mind that Djokovic had pulled out of the tournament and instead were watching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Carlos Ferrero going at it in the quarterfinals.

Is Beijing being groomed to become the fifth major?

The players acknowledge that the tournament infrastructure would fit the Grand Slam bill, the tradition just isn't there.

"Facility-wise this is big," Ivan Ljubicic said. "There are a lot of courts, and the facilities are here to be a bigger tournament.

"I'm sure the China Open Beijing would love to have bigger tournament like Masters 1000 or, hopefully, bigger than that. But it's really schedule-wise difficult to become part of it once you're not. But I really appreciate the fact that Beijing and China Open are trying as much as they can to make us feel like it is a bigger tournament than it actually is."

Drewett who is the ATP's guy in charge of this region, has been careful not to misguide officials here into believing they can grow to Grand Slam status.

"The history of tennis is there's four Grand Slams, and those four events have great tradition and great history," Drewett said. "You can't replace that. What these events can be is extremely significant events on the world tour by having a great facility, great support by their government, and great support commercially from their sponsors and television."

Charles Hsuing, the co-tournament director of the China Open, takes his cue from Drewett. Therefore, he acknowledges that the idea of Beijing becoming a fifth Grand Slam is a pleasant, but likely not plausible, dream.

But he also sees no reason why Beijing shouldn't continue to do its best to be as close a facsimile of a major as possible.

"We might not be a Grand Slam, but look around you and you'll see a tournament that has everything a Grand Slam has," Hsuing said proudly. "And next year, we'll be raising our prize money."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.