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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Guangzhou

Guangzhou, China

Albot, Sugita, Marchenko© Robert DavisRadu Albot, Yuichi Sugita and Iliya Marchenko fly to Ghangzhou, China.

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis will be following the ATP Challenger Tour circuit this year and will write a series of reports. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Guangzhou, China.

Wu Di might be ranked 209 in the Emirates ATP Rankings but he is No. 1 right here in China. And in a country of 1.4 billion people, that is saying a lot. There is not much that separates him from the No. 2 Chinese player, Zhang Ze (216) in terms of age, 22 and 23 respectively, or ranking. But anybody who has ever done business in China knows that winning is what matters most here. For there are no pats on the back for working hard or blue-ribbons handed out for participation.

They say that for tennis to develop a country needs three things: plenty of courts, quality coaches and loads of competition. If that is true, then the People’s Republic of China is definitely on the fast track to developing tennis. This year will see three ATP World Tour events - Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen - and a record six ATP Challenger Tour tournaments on the schedule. And when you add on top of that all the WTA and ITF events, China’s appetite for tennis competition seems incredible.

This week we are in Guangzhou, China, for the ATP Changleshao Challenger at the Guangzhou Development District Tennis School. Our venue has a 4,000-seat Center Court, eight outdoor hard courts and three indoor courts. It is one of three world-class facilities right here in Guangzhou. We are located just on the outskirts of the city proper in a place called Science City.

It is sort of like China’s answer to Silicon Valley, an area carved out of the hills where I.T. and R&D rule. It is nice here with all pine tree parks, flower and rock gardens, and in the evenings loud speakers play Chinese choral orchestra songs. They even have nightly light and water shows for families out on a stroll. From our official hotel we can walk to the tennis courts in about five minutes and that is always a big plus for professional tennis players, who spend so much of their time up in the air. 

Just last week players on the ATP Challenger Tour had their choice of tournaments in India, Mexico or Kazakhstan. And this week it is France, China or Ecuador. The higher-ranked players can pick and choose the country and surface that suits them best. But the lower-ranked players have to go where they get in. And that is not always as easy as it sounds. Still, it can be a grand life for a young man. Imagine traveling the world to exotic cities just to play tennis?

The guys love to joke around and they have a little saying whenever a player’s tale has gone bad: ‘living the dream’. But in the case of Amir Weintraub of Rehovot, Israel, last week was more like a nightmare. Leaving the ATP Challenger in Astana, Weintraub had to fly via Urumqi along the Uzbekistan-China border. Mishaps and flight delays meant he had to spend the night in Urumqi and the airlines he flew had to put him up for the night.

“It was a minus one-star hotel at best,” recounts Weintraub. “Then in the middle of the night I woke up and felt like this weird feeling. I looked over and there was a strange man in the bed next to me. I was pretty scared, so I jumped up and ran down to the reception. The hotel told me all rooms were double occupancy whether you know each other or not.”

Things did not get easier for Weintraub. Next morning a monster blizzard delayed his flight by 12 hours and when he finally landed in Guangzhou, the taxi driver and hotel address got lost in translation. And so did his new iPhone, left in the backseat of the taxi cab. At least Weintraub won his first-round singles match.

Another thing to consider is that professional tennis players get evaluated and criticised every day of every week. Coaches and family members detail everything from the first serve percentage to unforced errors to break points converted and even poor footwork. This happens in practice and in play. Having your faults discussed more than your positives does not make for an easy day at the office.

Then there is the financial pressure.

Take Radu Albot from Chisinau, Moldova, for example. Even though he is the No. 1 player in the country, he does not have any sponsors. Not even his national tennis association believes in him enough to pay for his tours. Albot comes from a country where the average monthly salary is a meager US$227 per month. He can easily spend that much in a week just in food and laundry on the tour. At an Emirates ATP Ranking of 160, he has to scrap for himself.

A few months ago he came to the conclusion that if he was going to make a breakthrough he needed a full-time tour coach. Now in addition to his expenses, he has to be responsible for the salary, airline tickets, visa fees, and hotel rooms of a coach! Albot consulted with his family and pooled their savings and banked on his weekly prize money. They hired a coach. Finally, with a full-time tour coach expectations soared. But that just brought an increase in pressure on young Albot to perform each week. As if he needed more of that!  I mentioned in last week’s dispatch that Albot is reading a book on the power of positive thinking. He has even begun writing down his goals and dreams and taping them to his bathroom mirror in his hotel rooms.

“When you are winning it is easy to do the right things each day,” admitted Albot after a first-round loss here in Guangzhou. “But when you are losing, especially matches that you think that you should win, it is really difficult at times to keep your head up high. It can get pretty lonely out here at times. You try not to think about the prize money or ATP points when you are playing, but sometimes it is hard not to. Especially when you really need them both.”

Albot and others like him know that in tennis there is no such thing as an easy shot under pressure. A player can always get fitter, faster and better, but what happens when it is in the head? Imagine playing a match where the difference between winning and losing means hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars? Money which won can float a player for a few weeks or money lost can sink him straight away.

But what really hurts these guys out here on the tennis tour are the lingering questions. Questions like: Where to go? What to do? Does anyone believe in me anymore? And how do I pay for it? Most of the time there are more questions than answers.

GuangzhouThat is what it is like on the ATP Challenger Tour.

China has a long history of valuing the teacher. So it came as no surprise when they began seeking out blue-chip ATP World Tour coaches. Recently, Peter McNamara (China men’s development team) and Joakim Nystrom (Zhang Ze) were contracted. And Spanish coach Juan Manual Esparcia, who has coached Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Federico Gil, is here, and so is French coach Guillaume Peyre, who has worked with Marcos Baghdatis and Richard Gasquet. There are other ATP Tour coaches here in charge of provincial and city teams spread out like wolf packs touring the tennis circuits. 

Some of the guys out here that have caught on to my dispatches have asked me if I could make a special mention about ATP Supervisor Ed Hardisty. Ed has been in Asia for 30 years and taking care of not only the current players but many of their coaches. Hardisty has a voice that booms like a bass drum and you hear him before you see him. However, Big Ed is 6’5”, and he is pretty hard to miss. ATP Supervisors out here have to do it all. They consider special requests, set the daily schedule of play, oversee the officials, mediate on-court disputes, and in general, make sure all runs smoothly out here on tour.

China’s strength has always been its numbers, now with all these new tennis centres, tournaments and expert coaches, you would have to surmise that tennis is well on its way to being developed. Is this the beginning for an Asian Invasion?

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© Tessa Kolodny

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