With the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion, China’s pedigree and potential as a tennis nation should have matched its economic prowess in the last decade. However, the Communist’s regime’s strict control over the way players previously managed their careers, with the state run federation denying any international competition and recently taking an awesome 60% of their earnings which was reinvested to fund and manage their coaching, medical treatment and even tournament schedules, has severely restricted their success on a global scale.
The diminutive dynamos Jheng Zie and Li Na’s astronomic ascent onto the tennis world stage during the Australian Open, with both women reaching the semi finals on either half of the draw, has catapulted the country into the limelight, with the possibility of an all Chinese final and has left many wondering what exactly has changed and many nations no doubt secretly pondering, what could we have done better?
Chinese tennis has hugely benefitted from substantial backing from the Beijing government and independent business ventures during the five-year stay of the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and the run up to the Olympic Games in 2008, with tennis academies sprouting across the country and parents encouraging their children at a much earlier age into the sport, instead of hugely popular table tennis or badminton. Indeed, the passion for tennis has spread like swine flu through the nation and out into the global stratosphere. Sport’s labels across the globe have rushed to cash in on China’s new obsession with the game, with even the All England Club introducing stores across the country. Nevertheless, this massive growth had yet to properly transpire onto the world stage due to the Chinese communist regime’s strict hold they had over tennis player’s careers.
In a recent interview, one of China’s ‘Golden Flowers’, Jheng Jhi, who first raised a few eyebrows with her surprise jaunt to the semi finals at Wimbledon in 2008 and recently signed a lucrative deal with Mercedes Benz and ANTA (a Chinese sportswear label) said ‘there is a big change in tennis in our country…we can now play and prepare like the others. It makes a big difference.’ Indeed, since the Beijing Olympics along with Li Na, Jie only has to reimburse 12% of her earnings in return for absolute independence in the way her career is run, a rarity amongst Chinese athletes and the results have been dramatic ever since, especially in the women’s game, most clearly illustrated by the huge influx of Chinese paparazzi in Melbourne.
The next top 22 players are strictly supervised by 17 coaches, eight doctors and copious sports scientists, nutritionists, psychologists and trainers in a new national program. Semi finalist, Li Na looked to the future in a recent interview saying ‘I still believe more and more Chinese players will come through. There are many juniors playing here and others in the qualifying competition. Right now it’s step by step’ and also commented on her individual ambitions after beating Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams 2-6, 7-6, 7-5 in the quarter final, revealing ‘getting into the top ten was the goal my coach set me for the whole year. Now I have already done it in January. Now I will dream about the top five, why not?’
While the Chinese population have gone wild watching the live matches of their blossoming protégés, the women’s success in Melbourne has not come as a surprise to Gao Shenyang, a director at China’s sports commission, who told Chinese media: ‘Given the competitive form of Zheng Jie and Li Na, what they have achieved in Melbourne is not surprising to us. Their success shows that Chinese tennis players can find their rightful place in the tennis world.’
After beating a flurry of lower ranked seeds such as Maria Kirilenko, Marion Bartoli, Alona Bondarenko and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her run to the semi final, Jheng Jie now faces the steep task of halting Justine Henin’s formidable comeback, while Li Na has to overcome yet another Williams’ sister to reach the final. I’m not a much of a gambler, but I think I might put a sneaky bet on one of the pocket dynamos to cause an outrageous upset. Watch this space!
Melina Harris is a freelance sports writer, book editor, English tutor and PTR qualified tennis coach from London. For more information and contact details please visit and subscribe to her website and blog at http://www.thetenniswriter.wordpress.com and follow her twitter updates via http://www.twitter.com/thetenniswriter. She is available for freelance writing, editing and one to one private teaching and coaching.