Wang Qiang returns the ball during a match of CTA (China Tennis Association) Tour between Wang Qiang and Zou Xinyi in Anning, southwest China's Yunnan province, Aug 4, 2020. (Photo: Xinhua)
Tennis legend Li Na has hailed the timely arrival of a new domestic tour amid the coronavirus-enforced shutdown of international circuits in China.
The Chinese Tennis Association Tour debuted in Anning, Yunnan province, on Saturday, providing some much-needed competitive action for the country's pros following the cancelation of WTA and ATP events for the remainder of the year in China due to the country's ongoing in-bound travel restrictions to curb imported virus cases.
"The CTA Tour provides a platform for professional players to maintain their competitive form during the season break caused by the pandemic," Li, a two-time Grand Slam champion, told media as the circuit's ambassador in Anning on Monday.
"Without playing week in and week out on the pro tours for a long time, players need to be tested on court to get their touch and rhythm back. This is providing exactly what they need to get their game back.
"Meanwhile, an event like this builds a ladder for some youngsters to climb the domestic ranks, helping to prepare them for the transition to turn pro in the future."
With the COVID-19 crisis continuing to worsen overseas, the General Administration of Sport of China issued guidelines on the limited resumption of sports competitions in early July. The GASC urged organizers to avoid hosting international events, unless they are mandatory.
That missive prompted the men's Association of Tennis Professionals and Women's Tennis Association to cancel all the remaining 11 international tournaments on the Chinese mainland, including the ATP's top-tier Rolex Shanghai Masters and the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, through the end of the year.
With competition running safely and smoothly on the clay courts in Anning, a small city near Yunnan's capital Kunming, the CTA Tour has been warmly welcomed by players keen to get back in the swing of tournament match play.
"I was really nervous out there on the court having not competed seriously for about five months," China's top women's ace Wang Qiang (No 29) said after her straight-sets, first-round win over qualifier Xie Fuman on Sunday.
"It's really helpful to be able to step on the court again and play some quality matches. Even if we can't play on the pro tours internationally this year, it's good for us to prepare for next season," added the 28-year-old Tianjin native.
Citing fears over the ravaging COVID-19 situation in the United States, Wang last week withdrew from this year's US Open (Aug 31-Sept 13) and the Grand Slam's main warm-up event, the Western&Southern Open (Aug 20-28), leaving room in her schedule for more CTA Tour events in the fall.
Featuring all the country's top men's and women's players from the ATP and WTA ranks, the eight-day Anning leg of the CTA Tour kicked off its 64-player men's and 32-place women's singles main-draw events on Sunday with a total prize pool of 800,000 yuan (around $11,500) up for grabs.
The CTA Tour consists of four tiers of competitions, beginning with the 200-class up to the 1000-class, which includes the Anning leg.
It's hoped the circuit will provide a ladder for lower-ranked players or even amateurs to progress through the domestic ranks.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, all matches in Anning are being played behind closed doors, with players, coaches and operational staff required to take nucleic acid tests before their arrival at the venue and confined to a sealed-off area, according to organizers.
Although it cannot compare to the ATP, the quality of play on the CTA circuit is more than enough to shake off the rust, said China's men's No 1, Zhang Zhizhen.
"As my first official match after the long break, it was pretty intense. It was a good tune-up for me physically and mentally to get my feel back on court," said the 140th-ranked Zhang after beating teenager Li Hanwen, 2-1, in the first round.
With the domestic coronavirus outbreak under control in China, organizers of the CTA Tour have been negotiating with multiple cities to expand the top-tier 1000 and second-level 800 events over the next two months before opening the lower levels to amateurs across the country.