The Japan Open tennis finals are here, but where are the fans?
By Christopher Johnson 7 October, 2011
Paying customers regularly doze in a concrete stadium less than half full for most matches.
Featuring some of the most skillful and marketable athletes in the world, professional tennis events regularly draw huge, excitable crowds, appealing to locals, tourists and even those with only a passing interest in the sport. Not so in Tokyo.
Instead, even an excellent women’s final last Sunday, and men’s early round matches this week featuring stars such as Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in top form, couldn’t fill half the seats at the 2011 Rakuten Japan Open, held at Ariake Coliseum in Odaiba, a mere 20 minutes by train from Shibuya.
On the plus side, those empty seats make for a surprising opportunity for anyone looking for a shot of pro sport in Tokyo this weekend.
While the players are teenagers or 20-somethings, and millions of Japanese kids play tennis at school, most fans at Ariake are over 50, and many have been attending since the Japan Open began in 1973.
Tennis fans in Ishinomaki spent weeks clearing tsunami debris off their court.
Though bigger crowds could turn out this weekend if Nadal and Murray reach the finals, the scheduling hasn’t been kind to promoters either.
Japan’s most popular male player, Kei Nishikori, ranked 47th in the world, lost his first-round match Tuesday to number-three seed David Ferrer of Spain, quickly draining local interest even further.
Trained at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, Nishikori says the world tourdoesn’t give him enough time to build grassroots support in Japan as golf sensation RyoIshikawa does.
“It’s hard for me to come back and play more in Japan,” he says. “I don’t know if I alone have the power to fill a stadium.”
Both the men’s and women’s events occur during the busiest week in the Japanese sports calendar, when too many circuses, including baseball playoffs and a Formula One race, happen all at once. NHK’s sports program on Sunday covered the Japan Open of women’s golf, but not the tennis.
Even worse, China has recently launched its own tournaments that steal away players like top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who has skipped Japan every year since winning in 2006.
Nobody is faulting this year’s players, who came to Japan despite radiation fears. “We all love playing in Japan,” says women’s finalist Vera Zvonareva. “We are also trying to raise awareness (for disaster victims) and raise some funds to help give back to them.”
Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, who won the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo last Sunday, seems tailor-made for Japanese consumption.
After running rivals ragged for a week to reach the final, Vera Zvonareva received a bouquet of fake flowers.
Unlike the brawny Zvonareva or Serena Williams, Radwanska is cute, petite and fast. Yet her ponytail was rarely seen on Japanese TV last week, and many Japanese girls who idolize Maria Sharapova still haven’t heard of Radwanska.
Even defending champion Nadal, who grew up in Spain watching the Japaneseanime “Dragon Ball”, could only fill half the seats during his win Tuesday over Japan’s Go Soeda, who is ranked 118 in the world.
- More on CNNGo: Rafa Nadal: The Dragon Ball of men’s tennis
Japan’s current national champion, Yuichi Sugita, who nearly upset Canada’s MilosRaonic on Tuesday, blames “the mentality” of Japanese players, who don’t train hard enough to succeed on the world stage, he says.
“The place is perfect,” he says. “We have everything we need, a national training center with a really good gym. But we need more hard work.”
It’s a common theme. The organizers and promoters should perhaps also work harder to adapt to changing times.
Time for change?
Though sponsored by online shopping giant Rakuten, the Japan Open refuses to accredit most web journalists, and its English website is clunky to say the least.
In a city known for its progressive jazz, electro and underground rock scenes, tennis events need better music than the horrendous techno bastardization of “Dani California” which made this Red Hot Chili Peppers fan want to smash his racket.
Tennis events in Japan hide the kimonos and color behind distinguished gentlemen handing out trophies to players a third their age.
The problem, says tennis writer Akatsuki Uchida of “SMASH” magazine, is that the Japanese are trying to emulate Wimbledon, known for its regal airs and reserved English audiences.
Since NHK TV shows only Wimbledon live, Japanese viewers aren’t exposed to the loud, playful fans at events in Europe, the United States and Australia.
“Japanese fans think they have to sit quietly like Wimbledon fans,” says Uchida. “We should have more fun.”
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The Australian Open is a shining example of how to draw even non-tennis lovers to the party. The event takes over downtown Melbourne for two weeks in January, with trolleys ferrying people to gleaming stadiums and nightly concerts showcasing local bands.
Organizers fete journalists with cafeterias, fridges full of beer and rides home from cheerful local volunteers. The festive mood of officials spills into the crowd, who sing, dress up, wave flags or paint their faces in the national colors of their favorite players.
Instead of tapping into Japan’s rich tradition of spirited festivals, events in Japan maintain a 1980s mentality, where corporate sponsors take over the sprawling grounds with the sort of trade fair found at the nearby Big Site convention hall.
A few beer gardens and a white-sand play area popular with kids, are sadly dark and empty by the time crowds meander home after matches.
Rafael Nadal signs autographs for fans at the Japan Open this week.
The stadium, though clean and comfortable enough with a retractable roof, lacks the banners and works of art that turn the Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic music festivals into weekend wonderlands.
- More on CNNGo: What’s behind the success of Japan’s summer music festivals?
While sumo wrestlers and beauties in kimonos have added a Japanese touch to ceremonies, there’s still too much emphasis on august officials handing out trophies to virile young men and women about a third of their age.
Combining the women’s and men’s events into a single super tournament might create a new spark and arranging free entry for groups of students on weekdays would surely inspire a new generation of die-hard fans.
More than anything else, the Japan Open needs to be more, well, open — both to new ideas and younger fans. The ball, it seems, is in their court.
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