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China: Rising tennis superpower or paper tiger?

(2008-07-25 12:12:16)
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中国女网

体育

分类: 中国网球

For All Things Tennis, All the Time(纵览网球资讯无时不在)

The Chinese have pumped millions into tennis leading up to the Beijing Olympics, but they don’t plan to stop once the games end. Is this country of 1.3 billion destined to be tennis’ next powerhouse, like Russia? Or will it be the next disappointment, like its neighbor Japan?

 

China: <wbr>Rising <wbr>tennis <wbr>superpower <wbr>or <wbr>paper <wbr>tiger?  By Tom Perrotta (本文将登载于美国《网球》杂志8月刊)

 

ON THE STREETS of Beijing, change is everywhere. Hotels and office towers cast shadows over what remains of alleys packed with homes, some more than 700 years old. Bicycles still crowd the streets, but their riders are increasingly jostled, and sometimes jolted, by the city’s three million cars. Shopping malls, electronics stores, stylish restaurants—destinations for tourists and the country’s ever-growing middle and upper-middle classes—are everywhere.

 

In the lead-up to the Olympic Games this month, the Chinese government spent about $40 billion to ready its capital city for the eyes of the world. When Li Na, the most well-known face in Chinese tennis, recently visited the city that she once knew well, she felt like she had never been there before.

 

“I don’t know where I am,” Li said of her trip. “I go shopping and I was like, ‘Where’s that [street]?’ I asked someone and they said, ‘You can speak Chinese, why don’t you know where that is?’”

 

Just as Beijing is unrecognizable to Li, Chinese tennis today is unrecognizable from its late-1980s incarnation, when teenage Fed Cup teammates Li Fang and Chen Li traveled to the United States to train with Dennis Van der Meer. Li and Chen had no sponsors, no equipment, “no nothing,” as Van der Meer’s wife, Pat, says. She remembers replacing Chen’s worn-out shoes because her feet were bleeding. Li rose as high as No. 36 in the rankings, but her meeting with Mary Pierce in the first round of the 1998 Australian Open—a 6-0, 6-0 loss that reduced Li to tears—was more telling of where tennis in China was headed in those days.

 

Ten years later, China’s top players have money, sponsors, and fame. When Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won the gold medal in doubles at the 2004 Athens Olympics, they gave China its first taste of tennis success on a world stage and a hunger for more. The Chinese Tennis Association continues to pour resources into doubles and expects more success at the Beijing Olympics, but singles, and particularly the development of competitive male professionals, which China lacks altogether, are now the priority. Only three Chinese women are ranked in the Top 100, with Li Na, once ranked as high as No. 16, the best ever for a Chinese player, leading the way. The Chinese don’t have a man ranked inside the Top 400, yet boosters see this generation of players— Li, Peng Shuai, Yan Zi, Zheng Jie, and Sun, among the women, and junior boys Wu Di and Zhang Ze—as a foundation for a future towering presence in tennis. Brad Drewett, CEO of ATP International and tournament director of the Tennis Masters Cup, which was held in Shanghai in 2002 and for the last three years, says that if one puts the players aside and looks at the business of tennis in China, it’s already in the middle of a boom.

 

Drewett describes his first visit to China, in early 2002 to prepare for the Masters Cup, as “an exhilarating ride and at times a very scary ride—you only want to take that sort of ride once.” The International Expo Center, where the event was held that year, was new and not ready for tennis. The tournament managers hadn’t planned for basics like player transportation, credentials for journalists, television production, and food service. Drewett says 2002 went better than expected largely because the country’s communist government invested in the event, as it does to this day, as a way to improve China’s status in front of a worldwide audience. The ATP later signed Shanghai to an agreement for the Masters Cup beginning in 2005. In 2009, the tournament will be replaced by a Masters-level men’s event in Shanghai. This year Beijing will host a combined men’s and women’s event in the fall, but next year the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour will upgrade its portion of the tournament, making it one of only four mandatory events.

 

As Drewett sees it, China has gone from nothing to a major player in a decade, faster than any country before it. “This, to me, is a boom,” Drewett says. “If you happen to mix into this a superstar player, you’d have to think of a better word than ‘boom.’” Yet tennis has touched relatively few lives in China.

 

It remains, according to the CTA, the fifth most popular sport, behind table tennis, badminton, basketball, and soccer. Sun Wenbing, head of international relations for the CTA, says there are now about 6 million people playing tennis in China, less than half of 1 percent of the population. Compare that to 25.1 million in the United States, according to the USTA’s most recent surveys, a figure that represents 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. At a rate of 8.3 percent, the Chinese would have 110 million players. If tennis one day approaches that level of popularity in China, companies that have seen their sales of tennis equipment soar in recent years, such as Li-Ning Company Limited, the sporting-goods giant founded by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li Ning, would really take off.

 

“It’s not a situation where we’re saying, ‘The growth is good but we better get a great player soon or it may dry up,’” Drewett says.

 

SO FAR, THE Chinese have succeeded on a grand stage in doubles, not in singles: first at the 2004 Olympics and in 2006 when Yan Zi and Zheng Jie won titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. These women face immense pressure to follow up their recent successes with another gold or at least another medal this month. “I think they have more pressure than anybody has ever had, almost,” says Thomas Hogstedt, the former coach of Tommy Haas, who worked with China’s top players for a month at the end of the 2005 and 2006 seasons and was hired full time after the 2007 U.S. Open. “They are expected to do well.

 

 Hogstedt, though, sees the upcoming Olympic results as a false marker of progress. He believes China will accomplish far more in the years after the Olympics, medals or not. “It’s just starting, I think,” he says. “They are going to develop on the men’s side.”

 

Chinese players have a history of traveling abroad for training. Li Na went to John Newcombe’s academy in Texas, Li Fang and Chen Li worked with Van der Meer, and several Chinese players have trained with Nick Bollettieri. But before China won its Olympic bid in 2001, the CTA rarely imported advice from non-Chinese coaches and physical trainers. Since then, it has come to rely more on outside infl uences. Besides Hogstedt, other experienced coaches have helped the CTA improve their approaches to practice, fitness, and talent scouting. Chief among them are Doug MacCurdy, former director of player development at the USTA and the International Tennis Federation who is now working in India, and Des Tyson, an Australian coach who works with China’s junior boys. MacCurdy, who first visited China in 1986 and spent a year there beginning in 2005, suggested that the CTA’s early attempts to train elite players were misguided.

 

The CTA tried to produce world-class players on its own, just as China routinely does in table tennis and badminton (of the Top 5 players in the world in both men’s and women’s table tennis, nine are Chinese; in badminton, China has seven out of 10). To succeed in those sports, the Chinese didn’t need to travel because all the best coaches and competitors were at home. China tried to do the same in tennis. Instead of sending its juniors to play against the best in the world, the CTA nurtured them with a steady diet of repetitive drills and running. Though that’s less the case these days, MacCurdy says there’s still room for improvement. “They tend to put in really long hours without much competition, which doesn’t foster decision making,” MacCurdy says. “There could be more competition in China at all levels.”

 

Michael Chang, the former French Open champion who is starting a tennis academy at the Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, half an hour from Hong Kong, agrees. “Here in the States, you’ve got junior tournaments almost every weekend,” Chang says. “If I didn’t have a junior tournament, my dad would put me in men’s open tournaments. They don’t have those kinds of tournaments in China.”

 

Only in 2002 did the CTA begin to compensate for this lack of competition at home by allowing its players to compete in more tournaments abroad. This newfound freedom to travel is not without its restrictions. While most top players control their schedules, Yan and her colleagues play when the CTA wants them to play, which is often. Yan completed 100 matches last season in singles and doubles, among the most on tour. “Sometimes the WTA trainers, they tell us, ‘It’s too much, you need a rest,’” Yan says.

 

The CTA has something to say about player retirement, too. Last year, Li Ting, part of the duo who won the gold medal in 2004, was denied a request to quit tennis—four requests, to be exact, according to reports in China. A CTA spokeswoman told China Daily, an English language newspaper, that Li was granted time off, and nothing more, to recover from an injury. The spokeswoman described Li as a potential competitor at the Olympics, despite the fact that Li had played just three doubles matches (all losses) since the beginning of 2007.

 

Yan doesn’t complain about her schedule or what the CTA requires of her. She began playing tennis at age 6 with a coach who was a friend of her mother’s (Yan started out in table tennis but was scared of the coaches—“Very tough, they make me running, running, running,” she says). She trained in her home province, Sichuan, which was devastated by the earthquake in May (her family, along with fellow native Zheng’s, were spared). Since becoming a pro in 2003, Yan has seen a lot of changes in the CTA, all, she says, for the better. She travels. She now pockets between 50 and 65 percent of her prize money (the larger the purse, the higher the percentage she keeps) whereas before she had to forfeit 65 percent to the association. She and Zheng have a marketing deal with Rolex (those fees are also shared with the association). China Daily reported last year that Yan and Zheng’s combined prize money and sponsorship earnings approached $2 million. “They want to change,” Yan says of the CTA. “They want us to live better.” The hope, of course, is that fame and fortune will attract the attention of youngsters and bring more talented children to the game.

 

Yet stardom makes Sun Jinfang, CTA director and former volleyball champion, and other former top Chinese athletes uneasy. Sun has little interest in individual glory: In 2006, she rebuffed Chang’s attempt to partner with the CTA, telling him, “I know you were a great player, but I don’t know you would be a great coach.” (Chang says Sun’s perspective had some merit and he accepted it “with a grain of salt.”) Sun has expressed concern about the fortunes her players amass at such early ages. In her day, the team—and by extension, the country—came first.

 

Deng Yaping, a former world champion in table tennis, complained to China Daily last year that China’s current athletes, born after China enacted its one-child policy in 1979, were too “self-oriented” and lacked discipline. Peng Shuai received similar criticism a few years ago when she refused to rise at 7 A.M. for practice at China’s national training center in Jiangmen.

 

The CTA’s stance on Li Ting’s request to retire reveals how little importance it places on individuals and how much it places on the good of the team. It’s for this reason that the Olympics, long a venue for Chinese success, have dominated the CTA’s thinking in recent years, so much so that it has decided to pull its key players from tournaments that begin after Wimbledon so they can return to China to prepare for the Games. “They don’t want us to go to America and come back and then feel dizzy,” Yan says, laughing.

 

Yet it is individual achievement—supreme self-orientation— that counts most in professional tennis, not what the Chinese Fed Cup team does, not how many gold medals in doubles they collect. This year’s Olympics are, in many ways, a last gasp for the old guard of Chinese tennis and the beginning of a new era where major titles matter most. Since Deng Xiaoping, the country’s late leader, opened China’s economy to the world 30 years ago, Chinese businesses have adapted to modern capitalism with incredible speed.

 

Today, China’s tennis players are in the early stages of a similarly monumental change. They’re no longer just Chinese players; they’re professional tennis players from China. No doubt they have the potential to succeed, perhaps on the scale of Russia’s pros. They might fail, too, as players in Japan, the home of a tennis boom in the 1980s, largely have. When asked which way it might go for her homeland, Yan answered carefully. “Hmmm, I don’t know,” she said. “Now, I cannot say.”

 

节选中文编译内容如下:

 

对于奥运会的网球项目,中国已经投入了大量的资金,不过对于中国网球这样的建设会不会在奥运会结束之后就终止呢?至少没有人愿意看到这样的事情发生,中国是想把网球建设成为像俄罗斯一样的超级大国,而并非学习邻国日本让网球的繁荣仅仅是纸老虎。

很明显,相比于上世80年代后期的中国网球,如今的网球已经发生了质变。中国早期的网球运动员李芳和陈莉曾经回忆说,在她们打球的那个时候,没有赞助商,也没有运动装备,“没有任何东西”,陈莉前往美国参赛青少年组比赛时,她穿得热身的球鞋因为不合脚,很容易磨出血来。

10年之后,中国的一流球员都拥有自己的赞助商,球员会得到金钱以及一流装备,当然还有知名度。当李婷和孙甜甜在奥运赛场上实现了网球金牌0的突破后,这让网球这个市场的能量更大程度的在中国爆发。中国开始向网球投入了很大的关注,不过在那个时候,中国网球选手的成绩并不瞩目,在世界排名前百的女选手中只有三位,而李娜曾经最高排名为16是中网的绝对领袖。而在看看男子网坛,甚至没有一个选手可以进入Top400。而如今,在女选手中,有一大萝的名字被观众所熟知--李娜、彭帅、孙甜甜、晏紫、还有郑洁。而在男子球员中也已经冒出了吴迪这样的新星。

华裔球员,前法网冠军已经入驻名人堂的张德培,对于中国网球的进步有着最为直观的印象。他表示,在他接受网球训练的时候,中国几乎没有什么青少年组的比赛,这让他根本没有机会在国内得到练手的机会。而如今,在深圳,几乎每周都可以看到青少年们在比赛网球。由此可见,网球在国内的普及就是逐渐让中国成为网球超级大国的先决条件。

中国网球这样的进步,当然并非在于有多少选手登上了世界的一级舞台,或是在联合会杯上的表现如何,或是在奥运赛场上拿到了几枚网球金牌,而在于普及。今年的奥运会,对于中国网球市场就起到了这样一个推波助澜的作用,它很有可能会把中网代入一个新纪元,通过十几年时间,可以明显感受到中国网球在飞速发展。

这几年,中国的球员日渐在世界舞台取得不错的成绩,他们不仅仅是中国球员,更是网球职业球员。毫无疑问,他们的潜力巨大,或许中国就是下一个俄罗斯--人才济济,百花齐放。当然他们也可能在几年之后就埋没了,就像纸老虎一样只是昙花一现,这样的例子就是邻国日本。中国的繁荣到底属于哪种类型时,晏紫很含蓄地回答:“嗯,现在我还不知道,这个,现在还不好说。”

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