[Ed. Note: TennisWorld is proud to present commentary by Bendou "bd" Zhang, a reporter covering the Masters Cup in Shanghai for TitanSports.]
So, here you have it, my first English tennis article. I was interviewed by CANAL+, a french television network, a few days ago so, technically, this is my second instance of “international exposure” during this year’s Masters Cup. What makes this even more special is that this article is for one of my favorite tennis writers, Peter Bodo, and his TennisWorlders!
It’s pity that Pete couldn’t come to this year’s TMC. The draw is much stronger than last year and, as a bonus, the Western media is treated extremely well. They were taken on a shopping trip around Shanghai earlier this week and there is a “lunch by the Bund” event organized for today. Do we have such nice things for the Chinese media? Of course not! Ok, ok, we probably deserve it because we asked those “naive” questions in the post match interviews.. ;)
So, on to the topic at hand. How big tennis is in China, anyhow? The answer is: not so big. If there was a list of all sports based on their popularity in China, soccer will always be the number one sport here. With our biggest export to the U.S., Yao Ming, playing for the Houston Rockets in the NBA, basketball is a natural for number two. After soccer and basketball come those sports which the Chinese are traditionally good at, such as ping pong and badminton.
Although tennis is not at the top of the list, its popularity has been growing in the past few years, especially after Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won a surprise gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Zi Yan and Jie Zheng's wins at the Australian Open and Wimbledon have also contributed to tennis' growing popularity.
Oddly enough, here in China, to win an Olympic gold medal is widely seen as a bigger accomplishment than winning a Grand Slam. I don’t quite agree with this, but that notion prompted our government to pour money into tennis, in the hope that our national team can continue their success in the 2008 Olympics.
One good thing about China (well, at least in the eyes of businessmen and promoters) is that its population is just plain Large. Just imagine what the number would be if only 1% of Chinese loved and supported tennis! (steggy notes: that's about 1.8 million KAD's) So, you see, China is potentially a gigantic market for everything.
How many tennis fans do we currently have in China? Well, that is based on how you define the concept. We have lots of young followers, particularly girls, who are more “tennis player fans” than “tennis fans”. As a result, handsome ATP players -- such as Safin, Ferrero, Moya, and Roddick -- are very popular here. Mario Ancic was surprised by the warm (and sometimes crazy) welcome he received on his first trip to China; he was here a couple of months ago for the China Open. He blushed in his press conference after being quizzed over his handsome appearance! Naturally, “sexy” Roger Federer has an especially large fanbase in China (no offense to Nadal fans but.. Roger’s fans are usually older, more mature, and sophisticated).
As for the women’s players, Sharapova and Hingis are the two biggest stars. The Little Backhand That Quit, Justine Henin-Hardenne, has plenty of loyal fans. However, she also has more than a few die-hard haters. Yes.. we love and we hate. We Chinese are not so calm, or even emotionless, as we typically appear. We just don’t feel very comfortable, in our culture, expressing our emotions in public. :)
Speaking of culture differences, the Shanghai Masters Cup is an interesting combination of east meets west. Tennis is a very new sport to China, and the fans and media are still engaged in a learning process.
Occasionally, we still hear a few mobile phones ring during play in Qi Zhong stadium. We still have spectators walking around when players are about to serve. But, hey, I found out that quite a few of those interrupting play weren't even Chinese! All in all, this year, the fans have been better informed and behaved.
As for the Chinese media, we are newcomers to the world of tennis reporting. Most reporters are very young. I am in my 30's and am almost the oldest here among my Chinese colleagues. It's also worth noting that some of the media are not here to report on the actual tennis.
Instead, they are looking for fun stories about the players. I guess that’s one good reason why they care so much about Nadal’s muscles, Andy’s hat, and, last year, Safin’s three necklaces!
The real problem for the Chinese media, I think, is that being a reporter is not considered a viable life-long career. After working as reporters, some switch to being editors or even leave journalism altogether for other professions. In a big city like Shanghai, one faces quite a lot of temptation and career opportunity; this makes it all too easy for one to give up the thought of being a tennis reporter for, say, 10 years! I always joke with my Chinese media friends that, every year at the China Open and the Masters Cup, I always see half of the “older faces” gone and replaced by "new faces" coming through the pressroom doors. In contrast, the majority of the western media attending are middle-aged or older, and I remember them well from last year's events.
I guess this post has already gone too long -- I'd better stop here while I'm ahead; if you have any questions for me concerning the Cup, the Chinese media, or Shanghai, just ask! I'll do my best to answer them. :)
-- Bendou Zhang, TitanSports, in Shanghai