Published: 12:17, December 14, 2022 | Updated: 12:26, December 14, 2022
Serving up an ace female

CTA Tour concludes in style to highlight huge strides made by domestic talent

Cui Jie, the eventual men's singles champion, serves at the CTA Tour SJM Professional Finals in Macao. (PHOTO FOR CHINA DAILY)

With the country's top players in action and a series of promotional events held on the sidelines, Macao served up a tennis feast by hosting the domestic tour's year-ending finals to elite standards on and off the court.

As the season finale of the Chinese Tennis Association's domestic circuit, the CTA Tour SJM Professional Finals, was staged in Macao for the second straight year last week, with the four champions — men's and women's singles and doubles — collecting their shares of the 2.2 million yuan (about $316,000) prize pool at a grand ceremony on Sunday.

Cheered on by enthusiastic fans in the special administrative region, former national championship winner Liu Fangzhou beat Gao Xinyu in straight sets to claim the women's singles title, while rising star Cui Jie routed veteran Bai Yan in just 67 minutes in another straight-sets win to dominate the men's draw.

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Yang Zhaoxuan and Jiang Xinyu won the women's doubles before Terigele and Zhang Ze finished Sunday's final session as the men's doubles champions.

Launched by the CTA in 2020 during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tour comprises four tiers of events — up to 1,000 categories under normal circumstances — and concludes each season with a national championship that adopts a similar format to the year-ending finals on the ATP and WTA tours.

Women's singles winner Liu Fangzhou hits a return at the CTA Tour SJM Professional Finals. (PHOTO FOR CHINA DAILY)

Funded by the governing body and marketing partners, such as the Macao finals' title sponsor SJM, the tour offers a generous prize pool at each of the top-tier 1,000 tournaments with the biggest purse of the year in Macao easily eclipsing most of the financial rewards offered at the entry-level events on the ATP and WTA circuits.

Highlighted by the tournament's quality on and off the court at the Macao finals, the CTA Tour has cemented its status as a steppingstone for China's young hopefuls to progress in the pro ranks, said CTA vice-president Liu Wenbin.

"Over three years of hard work, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the CTA Tour has developed a ladder system for up-and-coming young players and even promising amateurs to maintain their form by competing on the tour on a regular basis," said Liu, who is also director of the National Tennis Administrative Center.

"Chinese tennis has witnessed significant breakthroughs this year and much of the credit goes to the drills that the top players experienced on the tour."

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With all the country's top aces resuming international play on pro circuits this year, Chinese tennis celebrated a major breakthrough in the men's game, with Zhang Zhizhen cracking the world's top 100 to become the first male Chinese mainland player to do so following a quarterfinal run at an ATP 250 event in Italy in October.

Zhang's younger compatriot Wu Yibing, winner of the 2017 US Open boys' tournament, also made huge strides by reaching the last 32 in New York, having battled through the qualifiers in September to prove that his junior breakout was by no means a one-hit wonder.

Both Zhang and Wu were consistent competitors on the CTA Tour's inaugural season in 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak had forced them to stay at home.

"The level of competition on the domestic circuit helped them stay in shape and got them ready when international play resumed," said Peng Lingchang, general manager of the event's co-operating company, Beijing CTA Tour Sport Management Co Ltd.

Men's singles runner-up Bai Yan poses for a selfie with local fans after the final. (PHOTO FOR CHINA DAILY)

"Launched when no international events could be held in China, the CTA Tour has provided quality training and competition opportunities for Chinese players, especially those not yet ready to play overseas.

"This will only help prepare more youngsters for future challenges on the pro stage with the tour's structure, prize money and consistent tests making a big difference," he said.

Cui, a 24-year-old rising star, said he expected to build on his Macao triumph to boost his career development next year.

"The whole setting of this tournament was really professional and high quality," Cui said after beating veteran Bai, China's former men's No 1, 6-0, 6-1, in the men's singles final on Sunday.

"I am really grateful to have this kind of test at home at such a high level so that I can focus just on playing the game to the best of my ability and try to build momentum from here," said Cui, who mainly competed on the International Tennis Federation's lower-level circuit.

"I think I will be more composed and mature when I return to the international circuit next year thanks to the experience of playing on the home tour."

Even with some legs canceled this year due to the nation's vigilant pandemic-control policies, the CTA Tour has hosted 33 tournaments in 17 cities across the country, attracting over 18,000 professional and amateur players since its 2020 inception.

By hosting the country's best for a second straight year, local organizers and promoters in Macao are expecting to take advantage of the exposure and prestige of the tour finals to boost tennis' profile in a city that is investing heavily in the sport, from grassroots level up.

"We've received quite positive feedback from not just the athletes but also the local crowd since last year's first edition. This tournament is making a very good impression on all participants and the local community," said Pun Weng-kun, president of the Macao Sports Bureau.

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"We are not at the stage just yet of having some local players who are good enough to qualify for the event. But we will start from here to invest more in youth training and tennis exchange programs with the mainland to eventually cultivate good enough talents from Macao to join the party in the long run."

A series of youth promotional events, such as a junior clinic overseen by tennis legend Li Na, were staged on the sidelines of the tournament, drawing increasing interest from the Macao public.

Coorganized by the finals' title sponsor SJM, the training camp, which was also part of a Special Olympics promotional event, invited two-time Grand Slam winner Li to warm up with youngsters and share her experiences as a pro with participants from the Special Olympics community in Macao on a pleasant morning on Dec 8.

"We are honored to welcome Li Na and the Special Olympics athletes to this series of fun-filled tennis activities. The series is testament to our efforts in supporting the government's 'Sports for All — Let's Exercise for Better Health' initiative, through which we hope to showcase the tenacious spirit of athletes, and promote the joy of the sport," said Daisy Ho, managing director of SJM Resorts, a major resort operator.