From Folly to Volley: The Dongguan Tennis Center Takes Serve

0714_PlayIn 2011, Liu Zhigeng, the Secretary of the Communist Party in Dongguan, announced the development of the Dongguan Tennis Center, a state-of-the-art tennis stadium and facility capable of hosting the world’s best tennis players.

The announcement, however, was met with confusion and suspicion by some. Tennis was not popular and the allocation of funding on such a development confused many, while the stories of Liu’s love of the sport—the Secretary was dubbed the Tennis Prince of Dongguan after winning six amateur titles—made others suspicious.

The tennis center had a troubled construction. Liu was promoted to vice governor of Guangdong and his successor, Xu Jianhua, was not as supportive of the tennis center. Funding was cut and construction stalled. For awhile, the unfinished Dongguan Tennis Center was in danger of becoming another albatross of property development in China.

Last December, however, the tennis center finally opened. It may not showcase the likes of Roger Federer like Liu envisioned, but the tennis center has turned out to be a place where amateur competition is growing, youngsters can learn and more people than ever can play tennis.

Surrounding the 3,000-seat stadium there are 17 hard courts, four of which can seat a couple of hundred spectators. Inside there are two more hard courts and two clay courts.

The prices vary greatly. The outdoor hard courts are RMB 50 per hour—slightly more expensive than many of the courts in residential gardens, but much better to play on. The indoor clay courts, however, will set you back RMB 500 for an hour. Apparently, it is so expensive because the clay is imported from Italy.

Liu Zhi Geng was promoted to Vice Governor of Guangdong and his successor, Xu Jian Hua,was not as supportive of the tennis center.

Gai Shaoheng is the manager of the tennis center. Ten years ago he moved to Dongguan from Shanxi to be a private tennis coach. While in Dongguan he also founded the tennis organization that’s organized competitions and provides coaching schemes. The organization is called Ai Dong, which means Love Sport.

Gai is keen to get more people involved in tennis, and in particular, to introduce the sport to youngsters. In January the courts were free for the public to use for a week. In July, there will be a summer camp at the stadium, which has been organized through the Ai Dong Organization. For RMB 600 the children will receive 15 hour-long lessons from Gai and the other coaches.

He is also looking to increase the amount of competitions in the area and has already held some amateur events. In January there was a citywide competition, and in May, a provincial tournament. Both events drew more than 300 competitors. The first weekend of August there will be a Dongguan Open. The three day amateur competition is open to the public, both locals and foreigners. Anyone interested in competing must register before July 20.

Many of the private tennis coaches in Dongguan now teach at the tennis center. Bian Feifei, is one of the most popular coaches. She has taught hundreds and also had a successful amateur playing career, culminating with a win in the Women’s CRT Final in Beijing in 2012.

Bian believes the stadium can have a big impact on tennis in Dongguan. “Most of the tennis courts in Dongguan are inside gardens hidden away from the public. The stadium has made tennis more accessible,” she said. Also, most gardens only have one or two courts, making it difficult to get a booking. The tennis center has made it a lot easier to play.

The stadium still seems to be a long way from hosting the likes of Maria Sharapova. The surface of the center court has some issues and will not be fixed until next year. Also, there are already many tournaments in China. There is the Guangzhou International Women’s Open and the Shenzhen Open, while in the men’s game has the Shanghai Masters and the China Open held in Beijing.

While competition in Dongguan is still some way from what it is in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Gai believes it is important to focus on the city’s own progress rather than compare it to others. “Ten years ago in Dongguan, there were only three or four courts and 30 or 40 players. Now, there are over a hundred courts and hundreds of players,” he said.

“We have to admit that without Liu Zhigeng then there would be no Dongguan Tennis Center,” Bian said. She may be right, but if the Dongguan Tennis Center can focus on making tennis more accessible then the former vice governor may be proven right after all.

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