It’s a first lone flight.
It’s a first venture to the Far East, to an impenetrable language, to a vivid new culture.
It’s a guilt-laden journey taken entirely to indulge a passion for tennis.
It’s both terrifying and thrilling: Shanghai.
This relives the impressions of a first trip to a tennis Major, in one of the tour's most charismatic cities.
The taxi journey from the airport to city center sets the tone for every back-seat expedition that follows.
There’s no sense of speed limit, traffic control, or safety. And it’s the only way to reach the out-of-town Qi Zhong tennis complex.
Thus, every day of tennis begins with my heart pounding like a sledgehammer.
The noise and visual spectacle of Shanghai is, in itself, enough to send the pulse racing.
It is a city with a glimmering, modern heart: buzzing, furious, neon-lit, sky-scraping, every step a photo opportunity.
The Huangpu River offers the boat trip of a lifetime.
For around $6, it is possible to watch the Shanghai skyline turn from dusk to night, and the best lightshow that money can buy.
The modern, commercial Pudong district is on one side, the Art Deco highlights of the Bund on the other.
Down the river come vast floating TV adverts, flashing up dazzling images of banks, children’s toys, and branded food. On one, there are highlights of last year’s Masters Cup—Roger Federer in full neon action—sailing in front of one of Asia’s tallest buildings, the Oriental Pearl Tower.
It is a scene reminiscent of Bladerunner, with a New York personality and EuroDisney highlights.
Shanghai is also a city of dramatic contrasts.
Just off the traffic-choked, tourist-thronged, architectural canyons are tightly-packed passageways crammed with traditional food stalls, tenements, and bicycle racks.
A few hundred meters further on, and colonial French villas give way to the players’ hotel of choice—the Hilton—and shop after shop of outrageously expensive jewelery.
The taxi journey to Qi Zhong, taking more than an hour, advances onto dual carriageways that are bordered by strings of huge, identical factory buildings.
Yet the lamp posts are adorned at every turn with banners featuring the stars of men’s tennis. Andy Roddick is followed by Rafael Nadal, who is superseded by Roger Federer and then Novak Djokovic.
Shanghai is very proud to host this international sporting event, and is hugely proud of the venue it has created especially for its tennis.
Scattered amongst the traditional quarters, the futuristic affluence, and the reminders of Shanghai’s complex European colonization are hidden entrances to peaceful tea gardens, Buddhist temples, and pagodas.
Shanghai is shut out.
China shines through.
As Qi Zhong comes into view, at night, for the first time, the monumental Centre Court glows like a giant table lamp.
It stands above the surrounding complex at the top of a long, upward-sloping approach, and is surrounded by tiers of steps.
Once inside, a perfect glass-clad circle envelopes the arena, providing space for sponsors' stalls, information stands, and dozens of entrances to the coliseum itself.
Then, there are the smells: sweet nuts, delicate sushi, delicious spring rolls. The food is immaculate, cheap, varied, and plentiful.
The first entry into the centerpiece of Shanghai’s tennis center is heart-stopping: a vast, elegant interior that is designed to enhance the spectator’s experience of the tennis.
Its simple beauty will not be denied. The circular structure is uncluttered by any obvious support, so every seat has a perfect, unimpeded view.
But the eyes are drawn upwards to admire the concept of this magnolia flower of an arena. The steel roof is made from eight petal-shaped pieces, each weighing two tons. Closed, it resembles a magnolia, the symbolic flower of Shanghai. The opening of the roof, which takes just eight minutes, represents the magnolia’s blooming.
And should it get too hot or cold within the flower, the air-conditioning under each seat can either cool or warm the cockles of each spectator’s heart.
The arena is spacious, yet has an intimate feel not unlike a modern version of Wimbledon’s No. 1 court.
That, however, is where the similarity with Wimbledon ends.
The Chinese love their tennis and are uninhibited in expressing that love.
The mass of young supporters brandish their allegiances on their faces, either with the colors of flags or the names of heroes. They are, by turn, vociferous and hushed. They are both fans and tennis enthusiasts.
There is also true spectacle. With the roof closed, a lightshow of words and logos sweeps across the violet-blue of the court surface.
The music is cranked up, and the players emerge through dry ice to rapturous announcements.
Shanghai was, last year, a thrilling and hospitable host to the Masters Cup competition.
The highlight, on that occasion, was an epic round-robin between Federer and Andy Murray. In the Masters 1000 event this year, neither is playing. Some other favorites have retired with injury.
But as the week’s competition reaches its climax, there is no doubt that the cheers of this tennis-mad city and her enthusiastic people will still ricochet around those magnolia petals.