Tennis: Trailblazer Li Na a tough act to follow

Retired Chinese tennis star Li Na at the OCBC Arena in Singapore on Oct 24, 2015.
Retired Chinese tennis star Li Na at the OCBC Arena in Singapore on Oct 24, 2015.PHOTO: ST FILE

Younger ones point to huge gap in standards but lack of success holds back growth in China

It was China's National Day yesterday and, for the first time at the week-long Wuhan Open, the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre was buzzing as close to 10,000 spectators turned up at the 15,000-seater centre court for the final day of competition.

While they eagerly snapped photos of the women's tennis stars that graced the event, what was conspicuously missing were Chinese players at the business end of the tournament.

Ever since Wuhan's own native, Li Na, retired from professional tennis in September 2014, there is a lingering worry that the world's most populous country is unable to find a successor to the trailblazing Li soon.

Li, who reached a career-high world ranking of No. 2, was the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam title at the 2011 French Open, and she added a second Major in 2014 when she bagged the Australian Open.

But since then, the current crop of Chinese players on the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tour have come nowhere close to achieving the level of success of Li.

World No. 38 Zhang Shuai is the highest-ranked Chinese player now, with three others (No. 70 Wang Qiang, No. 79 Zheng Saisai and No. 90 Duan Yingying) in the top 100 of the WTA rankings.

HARD TO REPLACE

If Serena Williams retires, I think it will be hard to find another Serena too.

PENG SHUAI, the last Chinese woman to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, at the 2014 US Open.

MASSIVE GULF

I need to be realistic. To win a Grand Slam, you have to win seven matches. But if I struggle to even win a single match, how can I talk about being a champion?

ZHANG SHUAI, China's highest-ranked female player, who did not get past the first round in 14 Grand Slam tournaments till her run to the Australian Open quarter-finals this year.

Veteran Peng Shuai, 30, was the last Chinese player to make a run in a Grand Slam tournament, reaching the 2014 US Open semi-finals. The former world No. 1 doubles player bristled when asked how challenging it was for the newer players to emulate Li.

She said: "I am not saying that it is difficult to make a breakthrough, but there will always be a huge difference between Li and the rest of us.

"If Serena Williams retires, I think it will be hard to find another Serena too."

Zhang, 27, said that winning a Grand Slam is a goal that is too ambitious for her. Before she broke through to the Australian Open quarter-finals this year, she had lost in all 14 of her opening-round singles matches at the Majors.

"I need to be realistic. To win a Grand Slam, you have to win seven matches," she said. "But if I struggle to even win a single match, how can I talk about being a champion?

"Every player wants to win a Grand Slam, but I am not confident at all that I will win it."

For a nation that organises eight WTA tournaments each year, the lack of star power among the Chinese players means that the sport is struggling with popularity in the vast country.

Li Ya, a driver who accompanied world No. 1 Angelique Kerber and 2015 Wuhan Open winner Venus Williams on separate trips within the city this week, said that just one person along the streets could recognise Williams, while no one batted an eyelid when Kerber shopped.

She said: "Tennis is still not as popular as table tennis or badminton in China. But all of us know Li Na, of course, she is our own."

Nonetheless, WTA chief executive officer Steve Simon is more optimistic that China will eventually produce another Grand Slam champion.

He is hopeful that more Chinese players will follow Li's footsteps to danfei, which means "fly solo" in Mandarin, when she broke away from the national state-run sports system in 2008.

That move freed her to choose her own coaches, including Justine Henin's former coach Carlos Rodriguez, and keep all her prize money. Currently, only a handful, including Zhang, Wang and Peng, are flying solo.

Simon said: "China is doing a lot of things right in terms of the volume of players appearing on the Tour now.

"But there are intangible things that are hard to teach, such as creating an environment for an athlete that they can play without fear or worry about repercussions from the (Chinese Tennis Association).

"That will allow them to play freely on court, which will take them from 50 to top 10 in the world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'Trailblazer Li Na tough act to follow'. Print Edition | Subscribe