China, 1; Player, love
By Charles Emore
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Seven months ago, Peng Shuai soared to the highest ranking for a Chinese tennis player, No. 31.
Kim Clijsters, one of her three top-10 upset victims, called Peng — who is from Tianjin by way of Delray Beach — "the best player I've played in a long time."
She can "definitely become top-three" in the world, Clijsters said after Peng snapped the Belgian's 26-match U.S. win streak, 6-4, 6-4, last summer in the quarterfinals in San Diego.
As the Nasdaq-100 Open begins this week in Key Biscayne, Peng is struggling to pick up the shards of last year's breakout season. It shattered in a feud that made headlines in January across China, a clash with sports authorities about control of her schedule and training.
The case highlights the tension in China about how to handle a sport once shunned as a symbol of the decadent West that is now part of the nation's ambitions for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Peng, 20, was sent as a teenager by her provincial government to train with Alan Ma, a Chinese-speaking coach in Delray Beach. Since climbing from the obscurity of a ranking near 300 in late 2003, Peng discovered she was ready for almost every match but one — the one with the government sports machine in China.
Peng paused for several seconds and swallowed when asked recently about her emotions during the tumultuous start of the season. Peng, who is ranked No. 60, spoke after a first-round loss at the Pacific Life Open.
"The last couple of months for me have been very hard," she said.
A lack of control
Patriotism was never the issue for her, she said: "I really want to play for my country."
Government officials insisted her focus should be on winning a gold medal in Beijing and playing in her country's national games, not on "selfish" individual pursuits. Last year, for example, she missed Wimbledon because she had to compete in a domestic event. China's gold-medal diver Tian Liang recently was expelled from the national team for engaging in too many commercial activities and refusing to conform to the team schedule.
"I think what makes her different from other Chinese players is they work hard, but they're not as ambitious," Ma said of Peng. "They have a good life in China. Peng's a little different. She is willing to train and live in another country. She wants to be famous. She wants to be a cover girl."
From China, Peng sobbed on the telephone to Ma. At one point, Peng threatened to quit the sport and go back to school. That pushed the sports authorities toward a compromise that frees her from some national-team training requirements in China, but it came at a cost. She had to apologize publicly, and she had to officially regret wanting what players in other countries take for granted, such as choosing her coach.
"Towards the goal of the Beijing Olympics, I will train hard, create a harmonious training environment, try to make greater achievements and pay back the support of the country and the people," Peng was quoted as saying in a state-media release.
At Indian Wells, she traveled with a temporary coach, uncertain about a permanent one. Ma said he was offered the job in October, along with tutoring other Chinese Olympic hopefuls, including Li Na, who is ranked No. 70. But he and Chinese officials could not agree on terms that would allow him to tend to his obligations at his International Tennis Academy in Delray Beach.
What seems clear is that Peng won't be returning any time soon to her apartment in Building 9 of Ma's academy. There have been discussions about a possible deal for Karel Fromel, another ITA coach, to travel with her.
Her lack of control is evident even in details like her clothes. She wore the identical outfit as her competitor in one recent match.
"The federation signed the contract," Peng said. "They never ask me, you know. I don't have any contract" for clothing or equipment.
Unique in her situation
Players have to turn over up to 65 percent of their earnings to government sports organizations in China. Of course, athletes from other countries also face pressures to compete for national teams, but few in tennis encounter anything like the situation in China.
"I know this girl," said Russia's Elena Dementieva, another top-10 player, along with Anastasia Myskina, also of Russia, whom Peng has beaten in the past year. "I think she has a difficult situation."
Dementieva noted Peng's forced absence from Wimbledon and added, "She was not allowed to play some other competitions. It's not easy for her because it's not fair compared to other players. She wants to be on the tour. She wants to play as much as she wants to."
In Russia, the state support for tennis all but collapsed after the communist government fell. Ambitious parents paid for coaching. China remains very much a state-controlled system.
"She has a lot of support from the sports organization," Dementieva conceded. "Maybe she doesn't have a chance to play without that support."
Tension with the government system is almost inevitable for any tennis players in China who taste success on the pro tour, said Dr. Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports and chair of the anthropology department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A track and field athlete herself, she competed in Chinese national college games in the heptathlon while studying Chinese language in Beijing in the 1980s.
"I think it's a conflict built into the system for Chinese players," Brownell said. "Many of them seem to collapse. It is really too bad. I was an elite athlete, and there's a sense in which you have to be incredibly selfish. That's just the nature of elite sports."
The perfect marketing tool
There is a compelling economic reason for Peng to remain in good graces at home, Ma said. Sponsors had begun to inquire about Peng last year, he said. If she rises to the top of women's tennis, she would become an attractive commercial property like a small group of other Chinese athletes, led by basketball's Yao Ming, although her share would have to be negotiated.
"A lot of people interested in Yao Ming were interested in Peng even," Ma said. "Obviously, they're looking at it as a springboard into China. I don't think a lot of marketers are saying we want an endorsement from Peng because we want to sell more stuff in America. They're looking at the possibility of a contract with Peng because of the long-term potential in China. If she ends up being an outcast in China and can't compete there, that would defeat the whole purpose for everybody."
Painful corns on her feet, which required surgery, have only added to Peng's troubles in 2006. Ma doubts that she will be back into top playing shape until some time after the Nasdaq-100 Open.
There's no telling how long it will take for her ambitious heart to recover.
"I think she was surprised by the resistance," Ma said. "My advice was to come from the point of view she wants to help the country. The federation is not going to care if Peng was No. 1 in the world. That would be great, but for them, the most meaningful thing is still winning the Olympics."