The primary complaint against tournaments in Asia is their lack of crowd support. Tennis players competed in the mostly empty stadiums of Bangkok, Beijing, and the early days of the Shanghai Masters. This is a concerning issue and sometimes it makes me wonder why Shanghai was chosen to host a Masters, when South America already has the tennis infrastructure in place and far-reaching fan support (South America currently only hosts a handful of 250- and 500-level tournaments).
Still, if we were to overlook the overwhelming lack of fans in the stadiums, what are some of the positive takeaways from this year’s Asian fall tour? In spite of the empty stadiums in earlier days and the general complaints about the time differences in Asia, I think there are quite a few positive developments that we should consider:
- Crowds in Tokyo: The event was well-attended and fans were treated to a high-profile final between Murray and Nadal. This may be a positive sign that in 3-4 years, Shanghai will be similarly well-attended.
- Nishikori breaks through: Kei Nishikori breaks through in Shanghai to reach the SF. He consequently reaches a career-high ranking of 30, which is the greatest ever ranking for a Japanese male player (previous record was no. 45). Journalists paid tribute to this deceivingly modest but hard-won achievement. “Project 45,” as it was dubbed, is an impressive success and Brad Gilbert was a proud coach this week. His accomplishment could change the mindset for Asian players and budding fans in the near future.
- Quality, not quantity of fan support: Although they turned up in scarce numbers, the fans in China and Bangkok showed a surprisingly high level of dedication. As Finnish player Jarkko Nieminen noted on his FB page, after his loss in Bangkok,
“I have never got so much support than I’ve got here after losing a match. People just keep smiling and saying positive things. They are unbelievable, just great! They seem to appreciate the effort a lot what the player is giving on the court and they also support all the way, win or lose.”
- Fans at the Shanghai Rolex Masters were outlandishly costumed and ready to support their favorite players, whether those players hail from Argentina, the United States, or Spain. In a comically poignant moment, Nalbandian’s “fan club” quickly dispersed to rearrange its posters after he won his early round match. They replaced the Argentinean flag with the American flag and unveiled new posters designed to support Roddick, who was scheduled to play right afterwards.
- Despite the absence of Federer and Djokovic, among others, fans were not found wanting of high-quality matches. Florian Mayer’s memorable match against Nadal, the SF between Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer (the best match of the Shanghai tournament, in my opinion) and Nishikori’s upset of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were memorable treats for tennis fans. I wouldn’t quite dismiss the Asian tour as 2nd-tier tennis, because Shanghai was proof of the depth that exists outside the top 4, if in momentary flashes.
- Andy Murray’s achievement of the triple crown, with his victories in Bangkok, Tokyo, and Shanghai is an impressive feat that assures his rise to the no. 3 ranking. Despite minor dips in form during his final match against David Ferrer in Shanghai, he emerged the victor through his steady performance in the critical moments. The big question now is whether he will maintain this form through next year. Still, this Asian tour capped off an impressive year for Murray. The Shanghai final was also very well-attended with fans crowding the stadium to witness the game of a potential Slam-winning star.
If the primary criticism of Asian tournaments is the lack of crowd support, it’s best to think in the longer term (5-10 years). China and greater Asia are huge but untapped markets and their windfall won’t materialize at the snap of a finger. Given the relative lack of successful Asian players on tour and the novelty of tennis as a sport in Asia, it’s unreasonable to expect the large crowds you see in Indian Wells, Madrid, or Monte Carlo.
The presence of a Masters in Shanghai is strong incentive for China to further build a tennis infrastructure for local players. On a related note, it was interesting to see Chinese wildcard Zhe Li during his first-round loss in Shanghai. Currently 25-years old and ranked no. 385 in the world, Zhe Li is sponsored by Nike and Mercedes-Benz. It’s tough to imagine a European/American player with similar career credentials receiving such prime sponsorship opportunities. Still, this may be a telling sign of China’s ongoing commitment to bridging the gap (thanks to ample financial resources) with other tennis-playing nations.