China: Rising tennis superpower or paper tiger?(2008-07-25 12:12:16)
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?
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.
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