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SHANGHAI: The growing local tennis fever has driven the city government in Shanghai to intensify its efforts towards shaping the city into a fixed site to host world-level tennis tournaments.

The coastal metropolis hopes to host a Tennis Masters Series event in 2005, said senior city officials. The Masters Series is widely recognized as the most important group of tournament in the sport after the four Grand Slams.

Jin Guoxiang, director of the Shanghai Municipal Sports Administration, said: "We have, to a substantial extent, embarked on such a project."

The director told China Daily that the city government has worked out two possible plans in a bid to achieve the goal.

One plan is to spend millions of US dollars on buying the right to host the Masters event currently held in the Germany city of Hamburg, one of nine Masters Series tournaments.

The Hamburg organizers have reportedly encountered economic difficulties in running the event, thereby making Shanghai a natural replacement as host.

The other option is to considerably raise the prize money at the Heineken Open Shanghai, currently a US$380,000 annual international series event owned by the Association of Tennis Professionals. The event would thus be upgraded into a Masters-level tournament, according to Jin.

Even if Shanghai misses its Masters Series target, the city would then try to apply for the right to host the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup.

The city successfully ran the top-calibre tournament in 2002, winning wide acclaim from both players and tennis association officials, Jin said.

Houston in the US state of Texas is the event's host city for this year and next.

As part of its preparations, Shanghai has begun to build a large-scale special tennis venue in the city's southwestern district of Minhang.

The facility will feature a main court, with a spectator capacity of 15,000 seats, as well as an auxiliary court able to host 6,000 spectators, said Jin.

There will also be up to 40 indoor and outdoor minor courts with hard, clay or grass surfaces, Jin added.

Although the amount of investment required for the massive facility is not yet known, officials said they expect construction work to finish in 2005.

Vice-Mayor Yang Xiaodu said: "As a galloping international metropolis, Shanghai needs a fixed world-level tennis tournament to match that status."

The city's efforts in organizing amateur or professional tennis clubs and boosting tennis among local middle schools as well as colleges have led to the growing local following for the sport, according to Yang.

ATP officials were yesterday not immediately available to comment on Shanghai's ambitious plan.

However, ATP President Mark Miles has previously said the organization believes that there should be a Masters Series tournament in Asia.

"I must say, in every respect, it looks today like Shanghai would be ahead in any race for the opportunity to have a Masters Series event," Miles told the closing ceremony of last year's Tennis Masters Cup in the city.

The most likely scenario would be that an existing Masters Series event would be moved, he said.
 
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