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Eastern promise: Japan Open


 

Originally published on: 05/09/12 00:00

Three times I have travelled to the Japan Open, and on each occasion – once the jetlag has worn off – I’ve witnessed well-attended, world-class tennis in one of the most interesting and iconic cities in the world. Every September and October the Japanese capital welcomes the superstars of the sport during a two-week block of wall-to-wall action that begins with a WTA Premier event, quickly followed by an ATP World Tour 500 tournament held inside the impressive 10,000-seater Ariake Colosseum, part of the equally impressive Ariake Tennis Forest Park. The gigantic facility, in the south-east of the city, boasts a staggering 48 tennis courts, and lies just a couple of miles from the city’s picturesque Rainbow Bridge.

When Japan was ravaged by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, and was then rocked by the radiation threat after reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown, some questioned whether the tournaments would even go ahead in the autumn of last year, let alone whether the top players would want to travel to the country. The Japanese pride themselves on carrying on in the face of adversity, though, and, undeterred, they put on a wonderful show. The women’s event last year was won by current world No.2 Agnieszka Radwanska and the men’s tournament by Andy Murray when he obliterated Rafael Nadal in the final, winning the third set for the loss of just two points. For good measure, the Scot then went on to team up with brother, Jamie, to win the doubles title too.

The men’s and women’s events in Tokyo are part of the now well-established ‘Asian Swing’ of tournaments that quickly follow the US Open, and the men’s event has been running as a tour event since 1973, when its first edition was held on clay and won by Australian legend Ken Rosewall.

The event moved into its hi-tec new home in Ariake in 1983 and from then on was regarded as a tournament with some of the quickest hard courts on tour. A glance down the men’s roll of honour confirms they haven’t slowed too much over the years, particularly when wet weather blows in and the retractable roof is closed. Swede Stefan Edberg used his serve-volley game to claim four titles in five years during the late 80s and early 90s, and the likes of Pete Sampras (three times), Jim Courier, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, in 2010 for the first time, Rafael Nadal have all ruled. The women’s trophy has found its way into the hands of Maria Sharapova, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis since the event began in 1984.

The surrounding area offers fans and players a pleasant environment in which to unwind when the multi-purpose venue closes its doors each night. The complex is part of Tokyo’s metropolitan marine park project with some attractive waterfront areas near to the official hotel just a couple of stations away on the city’s efficient metro system, the Grand Pacific Le Daiba. Opposite are newly-developed shopping and restaurant malls where it’s easy to spot players dining each evening in the many sushi bars. Last October I found myself talking movies with Jamie Murray over a bowl of noodles, who was collecting brother Andy’s dinner after another late finish on route to the title. Some even like to re-fuel from the fast food outlets outside the stadium. The sight of Dmitry Tursunov tucking into a kebab just before his doubles final in 2010 is another vivid, and slightly bizarre, memory.

Tennis has always been a popular sport in Japan and its fans are desperate to get up close to the stars. They are wise to where the players are staying for the week and although hotel security is tight, it’s not uncommon to see hordes of wellwishers loitering in the tournament transport area keen to get photos and signatures before the players board the immaculate minibuses to the Colosseum. Occasionally, you might witness the truly bizarre. The hotel is a popular wedding reception destination for locals and it’s not uncommon to see brides to be – decked out in wildly extravagant wedding dresses – posing for photos with tennis professionals.

All in all, it’s a stimulating and very different experience to tournament tennis closer to home in Europe. The Japanese are proud of their event, courteous, and it’s a venue that is always a pleasure to return to.

'Eastern promise', by tennishead Editor Lee Goodall, featured in the August 2012 issue of tennishead magazine. Why not subscribe to the magazine here

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