Dreams, both big and small, play out in Zhuhai

Updated: 2015-10-30 04:17


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Dreams, both big and small, play out in Zhuhai

Two of ball girls chosen for the tournament warm up ahead of the Zhuhai WTA event. Provided to China Daily


The competitors square off on either side of the net, eyes narrow in fierce concentration, oblivious to the sun blazing down from the brilliant blue skies above the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

The stakes are high, both challengers are well aware that success will secure their place at the world's newest international tennis competition, where they will share a court with some of the world's biggest players.

The distinctive sound of a racket smacking the ball breaks the tension and the two competitors explode into motion.

With a look of sheer determination on his tiny face, Chen Boyu, 11, makes his dash, pint-sized and precise of movement, as he chases the ball. Next up, Jiang Hanyu, 13, grabs a towel with blistering speed and hands it to a player.

In the lead up to what will soon be the newest and third-biggest women's tennis competition in China on the hard courts of the event's host city, Zhuhai, local Chinese children like Chen and Jiang have finally won the honor of serving as the "ball kids" when some of the biggest names in the sport come to town.

The WTA Elite Trophy, which will be held for the first time in Zhuhai from Nov. 2 to 8, is a women's singles and doubles event featuring a 12-player singles field consisting of players ranked No. 9 through 19 in the world. It will have one wild card in a four-group, round-robin format.

The winners of each respective group will advance to the semifinal stage of the event. The final winner of the singles event will receive 700 WTA ranking points.

The six-team doubles field will compete in a two-group round robin, with the winner of each group advancing to the final.

Some of the big names in the sport likely to duke it out on center court might include Venus Williams and Madison Keys from the United States, according to the rankings in mid-October. The names of players participating won't be finalized until late October.

The Zhuhai tournament will be the final event of the 2015 WTA Tour. China's two-time grand slam winner Li Na has signed on as the official ambassador of the competition, in which players will vie for a chance to win $2.15 million in prize money.

"They have picked 30 ball kids for the event," said Chen, a budding tennis player and big fan of the sport who has been determined to be one of the local children on court at the event. "It's going to be held in Zhuhai every year for the next five years. I will go every time."

The new host

A little known but fast growing coastal metropolis in southern Guangdong province that was last year crowned China’s most livable city by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zhuhai competed fiercely to be the new host for the tennis tournament, which was previously held in Bulgaria. Both the prize money and the possibility for advancement have been bumped up, with the Zhuhai tournament now worth 700 WTA ranking points for the winner.

Chen Chi, city events office director for the Zhuhai Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau, said Zhuhai's near-pristine environment and close proximity to Macao (only a bridge away) and Hong Kong (less than 70 minutes on a ferry), were big factors that helped the seaside city of about 1.6 million people win its bid to host the event.

"It will be the top tennis event in southern China, and in the top three nationwide," said Chen.

He said the event would boost the city’s profile globally, with the on-court action to be broadcast in 160 nations.

It will take place in a new complex that features a 5,000-seat, covered stadium that will serve as center court, four show courts and 12 additional hard courts for training.

Located on Hengqin Island, the state-of-the-art facility was designed by Populous, the company behind the redevelopment of the home of the Australian Open, and was built by Zhuhai’s real estate industry leader, Huafa Group.

Lyu Pinde, general manager of the Zhuhai Huafa Sports Operations Management Co., which operates the event, said the stadium is ready for service as scheduled and has provided Huafa Group with an opportunity to diversify its interests into sports and cultural events management.

He said about 60 percent of the tickets are expected to be snapped up by people from southern China including Hong Kong and Macao, with the remainder of the crowd likely to be made up of fans from across China and foreigners flying in for the event. He said ticket prices range from 150 yuan ($23.70) to 1,200 yuan.

Adding allure

"Zhuhai is a tourism city, a romantic city, and tennis fits its image," Lyu said.

Adding to the city's allure is the fact that tennis won’t be the only game in town.

The second China International Circus Festival, which will see some of the biggest performance acts in the world flock to Zhuhai, will also return to the city in November.

Chen, who said the city was expecting 100,000 visitors in November, said Zhuhai is ready.

More than 34 million tourists — 4.76 million of them from abroad — visited Zhuhai in 2014, a 20-percent increase on the previous year. The city raked in revenue of about 27 billion yuan from the tourism sector in 2014. Revenue for this year is already up 7.52 percent.

Chen said the city has a long history of holding international sporting events. Plans are currently afoot to stage international events in cycling and sailing in the future.

Right now, everyone's focus is on the tennis.

Chen said as a result of securing the WTA Elite Trophy, Zhuhai was now investing in developing young players locally and is currently preparing a roll out of tennis courts in local schools.

While the crowds have yet to arrive, local fans are already gearing up for the event. Little Chen, who dreams of becoming a tennis great, is one of them.

He said his hard work during training has paid off and he is lucky enough to have won a spot as a ball kid.

"I want to be a tennis star, but it's hard," he said. "This is the first step."

This November in Zhuhai, big names and big dreams won't be in short supply on or off the court.