Sharapova and Nadal head star-studded China Open cast
With fan favorites Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal coming to town, the 2017 China Open in Beijing is poised to serve up a mouthwatering feast of tennis during the weeklong National Day holiday.
The biggest combined tournament in Asia swings into main-draw action at the National Tennis Center in the north of the capital on Saturday, with a glittering cast - featuring six current or former world No 1s and 10 Grand Slam champions - battling for a share of the .41 million prize purse. Both singles finals take place on Oct 8.
In the women's draw, all eyes will be on five-time major champion Sharapova in her first appearance at an Asian tournament since returning from a drug suspension in April.
The winner of the event in 2014, Sharapova arrived in Beijing early this week, practicing on the NTC's main Diamond Court on Wednesday, with the Russian watched and cheered by a group of diehard Chinese fans clutching posters and copies of her autobiography.
"Whenever I play in Beijing, my 'SharaFamily' (her fan group) always shows me such great support.
"I will never forget the last time I won the title in 2014, and how much they cheered for me on the Diamond Court," said Sharapova, who signed autographs and took a selfie with the fans.
As one of four Women's Tennis Association Premier Mandatory tournaments, the China Open will be the highest-level hard-court event Sharapova has played since completing a 15-month doping ban for testing positive for meldonium, a heart and blood-boosting drug, at the 2016 Australian Open.
The 30-year-old claimed she had taken the medicine for years and didn't realize it had been placed on the banned list at the beginning of last year. She was originally issued with a two-year suspension, which was later reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on appeal.
Other big names in the women's event include world No 1 and this year's Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza, former world No 1 Karolina Pliskova and reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
Home hopes rest with Wang Qiang, who reached the third round of the Wuhan Open last week, veteran Peng Shuai and rising star Zhang Shuai, who made the third round at both the French and US Opens this year, as well as the Australian quarterfinals last year.
In the men's event, an ATP 500 tournament, Spanish superstar Nadal will attempt to maintain his red-hot form after romping to his 16th Grand Slam title at the US Open last month.
Hoping to deny the world No 1 will be the so-called 'NextGen' of the men's game, spearheaded by German world No 4 Alexander Zverev and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Meanwhile, local wildcard entries such as Wu Di and Zhang Ze will be looking to gain valuable experience in such elite company.
Apart from the star-studded field, the tournament also boasts upgraded broadcast coverage, with new virtual-reality feeds provided on a number of streaming websites to offer an unique experience for viewers.
The tournament has also improved on-site services for visitors such as catering, merchandizing and interactive gaming, supported by a total of 43 business partners including air-purifier manufacturer AeraMax.
"As the tournament enters its 14th edition, we have set our sights on continuously improving not only the competition level but the fans' experience to live up to our reputation as the highest-profile tennis tournament in Asia," said Duan Gang, China Open CEO.