Queens of the Court

If recent results are anything to go by, China’s female tennis stars
could be smashing their way to Grand Slam glory in a few years


By TANG JUN

MAKING HISTORY: Li Na, now ranked 39th in the WTA, becomes the first Chinese woman to win a WTA singles title

After her emphatic 6-3, 6-4 win over 28th-seed Shinobu Asagoe of Japan at the Australian Open on January 19, China’s Li Na hungered for an upset over Wimbledon champion, Maria Sharapova. But, things did not quite work out for the 23-year-old tennis starlet.

“I’m disappointed not because I lost the game, but because I lost it so easily,” Li explained in tears. “I worked hard preparing myself for the match, but nothing could have prepared me for her relentless onslaught.” Her sentiments are representative of China’s current women’s tennis scene. Like many others like her, Li Na is a tennis pro, confident and ambitious, but not always ready to take on the competition. Li Na rejoined the national team last October after a two-year break and made her mark internationally by becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) singles title at the WTA Guangzhou Qualifier.

Ripe for the Picking

2004 can be described as a watershed year for women’s tennis in China. In February 2004, Sun Shengnan, who just celebrated her 16th birthday, and Chinese Taipei’s Chan Yung-jan walked away with the junior doubles title at the Australian Open, China’s first Grand Slam title. Even huger success came China’s way when Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the women’s doubles gold medal at the Athens Olympics.

Before China’s successes of 2004, players could only dream of playing with the world’s top seeds, the only on-court action being watching a match from the stands.

Although it might be a few years before a Chinese wins a Grand Slam title, recent results could be a sign of things to come. When world-ranked Li Na, Peng Shuai and Zheng Jie advanced to the main draw, and Li Ting and Liu Nannan made it through the qualifying rounds at the Australian Open in Melbourne in January, they set a record for the most number of Chinese players to have participated in a world-class singles tour.

Before this, 19-year-old Peng Shuai rocked the tennis world when she beat 2004 French Open champion and No.3 seed, Anastasia Myskina, 6-1 and 6-3, at the Sydney International Tennis Tournament on January 11.

Another success story saw Zheng Jie and Li Na reaching the semi-finals of the Moorilla International in Hobart, Australia, with Zheng cruising into the finals after defeating Li 3-6, 6-4 and 6-0.

Li, Zheng and Peng’s sterling performances won them 78th, 79th and 80th WTA singles rankings respectively.

In the newly released WTA rankings as of March 7, Li gained 25 WTA points to move from 46th to 39th, inching closer to the country’s highest-ranked, Li Fang, who reached 36th in 1998. Peng Shuai is currently ranked 43rd and 21-year-old Zheng Jie 68th. This is the first time that China has had more than one player in the world’s top 50 singles rankings.

The Move to Go Pro

From 1996 to 2000, the Chinese national team leaders focused on the goal of “bringing about a breakthrough in women’s tennis, particularly in doubles matches.” Li Ting, Sun Tiantian, Li Na and Peng Shuai were sent abroad for training and match experience, and foreign coaches were invited to give lectures. Efforts have clearly paid off.

In addition, during the second half of 2002, the country’s Tennis Administrative Center instituted a program called “Implementation Measures for Professional Training.” Under the program, junior players are sent abroad for training and match experience in international events. The first batch of beneficiaries under this program include Sun Shengnan.

RISING STARS: Li Ting (left) and Sun Tiantian, women’s doubles gold medal winners at last year’s Athens Olympics, are symbols of hope for the sport in China

More specifically, the program has brought about key changes to training methods as well. Previously, coaches were each responsible for a certain number of players. However, experience has shown that that model is not as effective as the “person-to-person” training model, one that is widely used by tennis professionals around the world. According to Fu Zhong, head coach of the Chinese Tennis Reserve Team, “When one coach is responsible for training several players at once, it is difficult to tailor training to suit each player.” Fu added, “It is comparatively easier for a coach to achieve that goal when he/she is responsible for just one player.”

Commenting on the professional training program, Sun Shengnan said, “It has played a vital role in my success.” Sun added, “As a result of this program, I have been able to participate in more events, meet and compete with more foreign players, and experience advanced training methods, which were all absent from the training in the old days.” To date, Sun has played in almost all International Tennis Federation (ITF) junior events, moving her world rankings into the top 20. Before the 2004 Australian Open, Sun was seeded eighth for girls’ singles and second for girls’ doubles, with her singles ranking standing at 17th.

Another obvious benefit of the professional training program has been the injection of confidence in the players, particularly when matched with world-seeded tennis stars. Wang Liangzuo, a national team coach observed that Chinese players lack the confidence and grit to implement learned tactics on the court. He said, “Confidence can only be gained from training and playing, especially through participation in high-level professional events.”

Wang has been Zheng Jie’s coach since November 2002 and has been shuttling between countries with her and his other proteges. He said, “They acquired the poise and bearing as well as the confidence of true world-seeded players this year, and we have the professional training program to thank for that.” But, things were not always this rosy. Wang recalled, “At the beginning, the ladies tended to shun the company of foreign players and mingled only among themselves during training. It was really quite infuriating.”

However, confidence alone does not make a professional tennis player. Li Ting said that experience from playing in professional events is “always more valuable to us.” Speaking about her and Sun Tiantian’s gold medal glory at the Athens Olympics, Li admitted that they never expected to beat Venus Williams and Chanda Rubin, although the other three matches were basically under their control. They even felt that they had a 50-50 chance of beating No.1 seed Paola Suarez and her partner, Patricia Tarabini, because “we were familiar with their tactics having already played against them once before.”

Tennis in the Mainstream

Although Chinese tennis players have made a name for themselves on the world tennis scene, the sport is still far from taking a mainstream place in the country. “We’re lacking a rich talent pool that will elevate it to a serious sport,” lamented Sun Jinfang, head of the Tennis Administrative Center. Statistics show that only 22 provinces or municipalities have professional teams, totaling about 400 players and 120 coaches. Tennis ranks ninth in terms of sports favored by citizens in larger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but accounts for much less in terms of popular support compared to football, table tennis and basketball.

Reflecting on China’s triumph at the Athens Olympics, Sun opined, “We took advantage of the rule that prohibits binational doubles pairings and the fact that doubles matches traditionally get less attention than singles match-ups.” Sun added that the success of doubles players is dependent on their competence as singles players, like the Williams sisters, for example. She emphasized, “We have to walk on two legs and not one.”

But Sun is hopeful that Sun Tiantian and Li Ting’s success in Athens will inspire more Chinese teenagers to take up the sport, eventually taking it into the mainstream.