Are the Tours spending too long in China?

Shanghai Masters China empty seats
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The Tennis Tour is about to wrap up its 5-week-long stay in China with tournaments in Shanghai and Tianjin ending on Sunday. The WTA Zhuhai Trophy and the WTA Finals will cap off the stay next month. In total, China will have hosted 14 tournaments this year (eight WTA, four ATP, and one joint) and 15 If you count the postponed WTA Hong Kong.

Disclaimer: This article has nothing to do with the current contentious geopolitical situation. I have yet to be kicked out of a Houston Rockets game or have ever made a sign.

The number of tournaments China hosts raises some questions in context especially in terms of the WTA tour. The United States holds eight WTA Events versus China’s nine. The U.S. hosts 14 top tier tournaments, as does China. Obviously, more points can be earned during the US hard court season and there are more joint events. However, this is markedly more than in France, the UK, and Australia.

So how do WTA and ATP tour heads explain the number of tournaments and weeks on tour spent in China? Tennis in China is frequently remarked as a sport that is growing rapidly, with 14 million regular players and a $4 billon market. But this hasn’t recently translated into top Chinese players. A couple of years ago, the rise in tournaments almost made sense with the success of Li Na, but now retired a void seems apparent. The highest-ranked Chinese man is Zhizhen Zhang at #179 in the world. The women’s side is better, with five players in the Top 100, but none in the Top 20, with highest-ranked Qiang Wang trending downward.

The lack of top players aside, you’d expect to have mass excitement and spectacular attendance with the burgeoning tennis market but this has been far from true, with many journalists noting empty stands and players complaining about the lack of atmosphere. This is especially evident on the WTA Tour, where even Top 10 players compete in front of almost empty seats. Some journalists chalk it up to the tour’s inconsistent number of top players, evident from the fact that the World #1 has changed five times this year, compared to a consistent Big 3/4 on the men’s side. Yet big names, despite the numerous competitions, don’t spend much time in the country with Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams completely avoiding it, and Roger Federer only playing in Shanghai.

But even some big draw players still notice the poor attendance.

“Last couple of days in terms of atmosphere it’s been not as good as you would like…I don’t know if I’m complaining about it, but I’d like it to be bigger crowds and nicer atmospheres.” – Andy Murray on the ATP Shanghai Masters.

Why so much time in China?

So is it all about the money? Interestingly, every other WTA International tournament purse is $250,000–except for in China where it averages around $500,000, which is a little odd. But the Premier Tournaments in Wuhan, Zhengzhou, and Beijing are all around the normal tour level. ATP tournaments in China are also on the high side, but by no means exorbitant. Both the WTA and ATP hold flagship Asian masters tournaments in China, with the WTA holding a regional office there since 2008. The massive market obviously must be attractive but tournament & national player success has failed to be realized.

In the last week of the Asian Swing on the WTA tour in Tianjin, there was a mass exodus of Top 30 players, with Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens, Alison Riske, and Amanda Anisimova all withdrawing. Many of them cited physical and mental tiredness as reasons for doing so. This is understandable, with many women playing four weeks straight before Tianjin.

The problems of China are fairly easy to diagnose: they have a lack of talent at the top; attendance and excitement at events are weak; and the players feel it. Many don’t even make appearances in China and/or leave early. Why do the tours spend so much time there when the grass court season is barely four weeks? Why do other powerhouse Asian countries such as India host one tournament for both tours, combined?

This is a question that both the ATP and WTA are going to have to answer as players frequently complain about the poor atmosphere and Chinese tournament stands look empty on TV.