Who needs skill when there's the 'Heineken moment'?

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The Independent Online

Andy Roddick looked on in amazement. The American had just pulled out of the Tennis Masters Cup after suffering an ankle injury in practice and was doing his duty by attending a press conference to explain his withdrawal. No doubt expecting to face a couple of questions from a handful of agency journalists, he walked into the interview room to find nearly 300 reporters and photographers waiting for him. "I wish I had this many people wanting to talk to me when I win a match," he said in astonishment.

Inside the 15,000-capacity Qi Zhong Stadium the crowd's interests are as unpredictable as the local media's. Moments of great skill, such as a well-placed volley or a delicately controlled drop shot, go almost unnoticed. However, scoreboard messages giving the speed of particularly big serves are greeted by gasps, routine smashes by loud applause and long baseline rallies by amused surprise.

Some of the biggest cheers of the day come during the "Heineken Moment" at the conclusion of matches, when television cameras scour the arena before settling on a member of the crowd who is holding one of the sponsor's products.

As for the players, the Shanghai experience has clearly been a pleasurable one. "The atmosphere in all the matches has been great," Andy Murray said. "They get very excited during all the matches. I haven't met too many people, but I really enjoy myself here. The tournament has been put on really, really well."

The players, whose hotel draws hordes of autograph-hunters, are treated like true celebrities. "It's not the same as all the other tournaments in a lot of ways," Murray said. "You don't normally get your personal driver who takes you pretty much anywhere you want to go. It's different, that's for sure. They look after not just me but all the guys who are with me very, very well.

"At some tournaments you always need your player ID and you can't go in this or that place. It's all a little bit uptight sometimes. Here it seems like everyone knows who the players are and are very respectful. They don't really bother you so it's just very relaxing."

China has become an important market for tennis and is now an established stopping point on the men's and women's tours. The Masters Cup first came here in 2002, when it was staged at a local convention centre, and has been played for the last four years at the purpose-built Qi Zhong Stadium.

Although the city will lose the season-ending showpiece to London next year, it has been given a permanent Masters Series slot in October in place of Madrid, which moves to the spring as an outdoor clay-court tournament. Before the Shanghai Masters many players will go to Beijing for the China Open, where men and women will compete.

Brad Drewett, the chief executive officer of the Association of Tennis Professionals' International Group, described the progress of tennis in China as "an amazing journey". He explained: "When you think back just 10 years ago, the ATP had an event called the Heineken Open, played at a much smaller stadium. I think the capacity there was around 4,000 people.

"That event used to attract somewhere in the region of 20,000 or 25,000 people for the entire week. Now here we are with an event at this magnificent purpose-built stadium, the Qi Zhong Stadium. I think anyone in the tennis world regards this as one of the top five facilities in the world."

There are posters advertising the Masters Cup throughout this teeming city of more than 18 million people and big crowds turn up to watch, even though the arena is in one of the more remote suburbs. However, it is clear that tennis is still a new experience for many Chinese. Travel around the city, where open space is at a premium, and you find it hard to find tennis courts anywhere.

Sun Jinfang, a senior Chinese tennis official, said that between two and four million Chinese men played the sport six years ago, but that the figure had since doubled and there was now a concerted effort to build more courts.

"Not only do people want to play tennis over weekends, but also during the week, for example in the morning or late during the evening," she added. "The degree and love of tennis has already exceeded the speed of building tennis venues in China. Especially right now, the pleasant thing is I feel many tennis courts have been included into small communities and many compounds. This is certainly something we're very happy with."

However, the Chinese have had limited success on the court. Although there are 14 Chinese listed in the men's world rankings, the highest is Yan Bai at No 545. There are also 10 from Chinese Taipei, including Yen-Hsun Lu, who beat Murray at the Olympics.

Staging the Beijing Games provided a spur, but the Chinese saw a greater prospect of progress in the women's game, particularly after Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the country's first tennis medal when they took the gold in the doubles in Athens in 2004.

At Wimbledon this year Jie Zheng beat Ana Ivanovic, the world No 1, and went on to reach the semi-finals before losing to Serena Williams. She is one of three Chinese, along with Na Li and Shuai Peng, who are ranked in the world's top 40 female singles players, while there are six in the top 100 in doubles.

Why you shouldn't give a pear

Should the players at the Masters Cup be tempted to venture outside their hotel, they would no doubt appreciate the "Passport to Shanghai" guide which has been issued to the media. Along with advice on tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants is a "dos and don'ts" section.

The "dos" include: "eat first and ask later as it is considered impolite not to try the food"; "when presenting and receiving gifts or business cards, use both hands"; "expect the unexpected"; and "always eat what is in front of you as it is considered impolite to reach for food that's on the other side of the plate".

Among the "don'ts" are: "do not give pears to couples as it denotes separation"; "do not finish the last bit of food on the dish at it indicates to your host that you are still hungry"; and "avoid physical contact (touching on shoulders, arms or back) when meeting new people".