Li Na is at the top of her game
January 07, 2008 11:00pm
LIKE Mao's Chinese cultural revolution, the tennis version is taking its time to reach its goal, Paul Malone writes.
But Chinese representatives in both the singles and doubles finals of the year's first women's tournament at the Gold Coast provided another great leap forward for a tennis country entering a year in which it hosts the Olympics for the first time.
It's five years since the two tennis tours -- particularly the men's -- sensed they could make plenty of beautiful yuan, the Chinese currency, from one of the world's financially booming countries.
Three years ago, former Australian tour player Brad Drewett, an ATP vice-president, told me China would become as successful as Russia as a player factory. "It's just a matter of when,"
The new Chinese national women's coach, Thomas Hogstedt, is a phlegmatic Swede, not given to rash statements.
His previous job was coaching Tommy Haas, a gig that required
the patience of Job and the man-management skills of Moses.
"In three to five years, we will really see the boom in tennis in China. There are big tennis centres in all the big cities,"
said Hogstedt, who coaches Gold Coast champion Li Na among a five-woman squad aiming to win medals at the Beijing Olympics.
"They have a really good girl coming to Melbourne for the Australian Open juniors, Zhou Yimiao. I see her as a big star, a top-10 player.
"The main goal for me is to do well in the Olympics. But really, after the Olympics they will have a lot of young players coming through -- (Australian coach) Des Tyson has been very successful, bringing up 10 boys between 14 and 16. One is world-class."
On Saturday, Li, China's highest ranked singles player ever at No. 24, won her first WTA title outside her homeland, and compatriots Yan Zi and Zheng Jie were the Gold Coast doubles runners-up.
Li, Peng Shuai (45) and Yan Zi (58) are ranked in the top 100.
China has 16 women ranked in the top 400 to Australia's nine. Four years ago, only five Chinese players were ranked in the top 400.
"They have the numbers, and when they set their minds to do something this is the result,"
Gold Coast tournament director Liz Smylie said.
"They have been thinking about it since tennis was a demonstration sport in Los Angeles in 1984 and became a medal sport in 1988. The Chinese have gone about it in a methodical way."
Zhou, the 16-year-old girl highly rated by Hogstedt, told a Chinese news agency she hoped to reach the level of Justine Henin, who she says is physically like her. She also hoped to win an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
Tennis has taken some of its biggest events to the world's most populous country at the expense of more established markets, and the Asian Tennis Federation's call last week for greater concessions from the Australian Open will become more vigorous.
The Tennis Masters Cup, the year-end event for the top eight male players, will be played in Shanghai for a fourth year before it is moved to London.
"But then the men are going to have one of the biggest Masters Series in China. It's going to be better for them because their young guys can play a second event at home," Hogstedt said.
"In 2009, they have one of the four biggest women's events -- except the Grand Slams -- with about $US3 million in prizemoney."
Unlike a smaller international sport such as cricket, cultural differences on the tennis tours matter less because there are more nations involved.
The Chinese add their own flavour to tennis. Their tactics for dealing with outsiders include a feigned inability to speak English.
Puffing a cigarette on Saturday afternoon, a much relieved Li's husband and former coach Jiang Shan turned down an interview request because his English wasn't good enough. A conversation he had in English with tour regulars a few seconds later indicated otherwise.
Li later handed him her victory bouquet of flowers -- not as a present, but as a "here, hold this" gesture unaccompanied by any public affection -- as she walked towards the Royal Pines locker room.
Polite applause from her smiling doubles compatriots greeted her, not the normal yahooing from teammates hailing from Western nations on such occasions.
Hogstedt knows China's tennis bosses aren't big on polite, five-year plans.
"My contract ends one day after the Olympics," he quipped, inscrutably.