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Wuhan aims for capital gains
source: China Daily     2018-09-30

Wang Qiang, China's No 1 player, takes a selfie with the fans after beating Daria Gavrilova of Australia in the third round of the WTA Wuhan Open on Wednesday. [Photo/Xinhua] 

Showcase tournament becoming Hubei city's calling card in international sporting circles

The goal of the Wuhan Open is to parlay the influence of the biggest names in women's tennis into making the sport a calling card for the capital city of Hubei province.

Wuhan native and double Grand Slam winner Li Na serves as global ambassador for the tournament, and despite being retired from the WTA for four years, Asia's first major singles champion remains hugely popular with fans.

The 36-year-old Li hit shots with world No 6 Elina Svitolina on a floating court in the middle of the city's East Lake last week, and at last year's tournament she teamed up with Indian doubles ace Sania Mirza to prepare a feast of traditional noodles during an interactive event for fans in the downtown area.

Defending champion Caroline Garcia of France also got into the promotional spirit last week when she joined spectators riding a special tram designed for the fifth anniversary of the tournament, handing out mooncakes to delighted fans.

Many initiatives have been launched by the tournament to promote tennis in the city and the province, including junior programs with local schools, universities and communities. The Wuhan Open also runs the City League Club amateur tournament, a university tournament and the Wuhan Open Young Plan.

"Grassroots activities are very important in order to reach out to the communities, to engage the fans and to follow the event," said tournament co-director Fabrice Chouquet. "We want people to talk about the tournament with their friends and inspire them to play tennis.

"We have a lot of programs with city league clubs and the university tournament. We're focused on developing tennis in schools as well. Judy Murray (mother of Scottish two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray) joined us to play a session with local school kids. We are promoting tennis to everybody."

The efforts have made tennis an indispensable part of the lives of many local residents.

Zhang Zixuan, a 19-year-old sophomore university student, joined the tournament when it debuted five years ago. Today she serves as a trainer for the ball kids.

"I joined the Wuhan Open as a ball kid when I was in the second year of high school," said Zhang. "I barely knew about tennis and totally had no idea of what ball kids do. I just knew that I could come to a summer camp if I signed up for the program. So, honestly, it was the summer camp that attracted me."

Zhang considers herself fortunate to have found her passion in the new position. The summer camp, organized by the tournament, is designed for youngsters to receive tennis knowledge and rudimentary training.

To give youngsters an opportunity to experience the majesty of a Grand Slam tournament, the Wuhan Open launched a ball kids exchange program with the French Open. In 2016, at the age of 17, Zhang traveled to Roland Garros with seven others for a three-week immersion.

"Actually, I was so lucky at that time because they would only take kids 12 to 16 years old," said Zhang. "I was a year older, but it was my last chance so they approved me. One of my biggest dreams was to work at a Grand Slam tournament, especially the French Open."

Trained as a track athlete in middle school, Zhang was the best of the Chinese ball kids who went to France, but the professionalism of her French counterparts made a big impression.

"You have to understand that the eight of us were the best in China, but there was still a huge gap between us and the French ball kids," said Zhang.

"Not only in terms of physical strength and running speed; the biggest difference was that they have a tennis culture of over 100 years. Most of the French ball kids play tennis themselves and they really understand the game. There were only a few of us Chinese who could actually play tennis."

Zhang rates meeting American superstar sisters Serena and Venus Williams as her fondest memory of the Wuhan Open.

"I still recall the first time I saw Serena because I was stunned by her momentum as a Grand Slam champion," said Zhang.

"Although the sisters appeared to be very aggressive on the court, they were very polite and nice to us. I've handed out water and towels to many big names, but some just ignore us. The Williams sisters always thanked us."

For many volunteers, the tournament offers a rare chance to interact with global megastars while being involved in a high-profile international spectacle.

Zhan Xinyi, who worked as a tournament volunteer for two years, said the experience helped her to find her passion.

"I'm a sophomore student and I love sports," said Zhan. "I could see and interact with the world's best players, like (world No 1) Simona Halep. I'm also responsible for helping media from all over the world finish their work here.

"I attended every media conference in order to watch and learn. For sure, I'd like to become a sports journalist."

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