MUMBAI (Reuters) - When the WTA announced a provisional list of tournaments for the remainder of a season that will be forever defined by the COVID-19 outbreak last week, one name above all stood out -- the Wuhan Open.
It was in the central Chinese city, the home of China’s first Grand Slam champion Li Na, that the novel coronavirus first emerged before spreading to the rest of the world, forcing the suspension of professional tennis in early March.
Wuhan has accounted for the majority of China’s coronavirus deaths to date and the city was subject to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world for 76 days.
“To go through that, to overcome that, I think it’s huge,” the tournament’s co-director Brenda Perry told Reuters from her home in Auckland.
“It’s huge symbolism and I think very inspiring for everybody there.
“At the moment that’s one of the first to experience the closest to being back to normal that we see around the world. It’s a very hopeful story for not just Wuhan but for China, for the world, of overcoming a huge challenge.”
After a cluster of new cases of the virus in May sparked fears of a second spike, Wuhan tested 9.9 million people out of a population of 11 million.
“I feel that Wuhan did some incredible job on recovery,” Perry said.
“I don’t think we hear much about that. Not as much as the fact that COVID-19 started in Wuhan. And they have almost everything back to normal, whether it’s transport or restaurants or cinemas, people going back to work in the offices or their industries.”
Perry said she had been in touch with the local organising team on a daily basis as they prepare to start the tournament on Oct. 19, pending government approval and confirmation that players will be able to travel.
“I’ve never heard from Wuhan, ‘we can’t do this’,” she said, adding that a final call on the event was expected by early August.
“In many ways Wuhan is fortunate that the tournament is toward the end of the calendar and it’s got the maximum time for recovery.”
There are many roadblocks still and Perry concedes that convincing players to sign up will be a tall order.
The current top three in the rankings - Ash Barty, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova - were in the 2019 field of the event.
Perry appreciates that athletes will have health concerns but she hopes to use her background as a former professional and a player representative on the WTA board to help convince them to play.
“It’s going to be very important that we communicate to the players,” she said.
“(If it’s unsafe) I’ll be the first one to go ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be going there’.
“I have zero hesitation right now about going to Wuhan ... I believe it’s one of the safest cities to go to anywhere in the world because it’s probably the most tested city in the world.”
Because of the financial impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on sport, Wuhan, like all of the WTA’s Premier 5 events, will see a 32% cut in prize money.
The Wuhan Open is currently committed to having no fans -- 13,500 of them turned out for the 2019 final -- and negotiations with sponsors are expected to be tricky.
“It’s a very different conversation now and we are looking at trying to be innovative as to what we can offer,” Perry said.
“One of the things could be being associated with such a positive comeback. I think that will hopefully be a story of interest for our sponsors to be associated with.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Nick Mulvenney and Toby Davis
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