Chinese women emerging in tennis
By Douglas Robson, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — It isn't a social revolution. But a quick look around the U.S. Open would suggest Chinese tennis is experiencing its own Great Leap Forward.
Four years ago, there wasn't a single player from China ranked in the top 100. Now there are six.
"I was the one who always said everybody's talking about the Russians, but these Chinese women are coming along, too," says Serena Williams, who began her U.S. Open campaign on Wednesday by beating Lourdes Dominguez Lino 6-1, 6-2.
Because of a booming economy, a rich tradition in racket sports such as badminton and table tennis, a burgeoning middle class — and most importantly, the looming Beijing Olympics in 2008 — China is primed for tennis ascendancy.
"The China Tennis Association has put in a lot of support," says No. 29 seed Zheng Jie.
It has been a watershed year for the world's most populous nation:
• China has a record six players entered in this year's U.S. Open, one shy of its all-time Grand Slam mark at January's Australian Open.
• The doubles pair of Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won China's first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and added a second at Wimbledon.
• In July, Li Na, the top-ranked woman in Chinese history (No. 22), became the first man or woman from China to reach the quarterfinals at a major at Wimbledon.
• No Chinese player had ever won a Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title in singles, but in less than two years they have captured six.
• In July, China beat Germany in Beijing to secure a place in the Fed Cup world group for the first time.
Can a singles title at a major be far off? "Maybe close, maybe far," says No. 24 seed Li, who wrapped up a rain-suspended first-round win against Maria Sanchez Lorenzo 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Li Ting and Sun Tiantian's shocking women's doubles win at the Athens Olympics marked the first significant Chinese rumbling. Many players point to the Beijing Olympics for the continued surge.
"It's the same (in importance) to winning a Grand Slam," says Li, a sturdily built 24-year-old from Wuhan, who says that children who once might have been guided into other sports are choosing tennis.
She played badminton from 6-8 before an observant coach, seeing her tennis-like strokes, told her to try tennis. Li recalls that she "didn't even know" what tennis was.
The Chinese players, most of whom travel as a group with the national coaches and also must give a portion of their winnings back to the federation, are also known for practicing five or six hours a day.
With government resources at their disposal, they have adopted a professional approach to tennis.
"They're very well organized in terms of recuperation," says top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France, another first-round winner Wednesday. "They're traveling with physio(therapist)s, with physical trainers and everything."
It's not clear why the men have not followed suit. The top-ranked man is No. 485 and none qualified for the U.S. Open. Li says it may be that men's pro tennis is deeper.
Despite these inroads, careers are subject to national considerations. Last year, players were forced to skip Wimbledon in order to participate in the country's quadrennial national championships.