Tennis chief aims to lighten up on Olympic team
China's tennis chief Sun Jinfang says she is working hard to take the pressure off players as the 2008 Beijing
Olympic Games approach.
Sun's assurances came after the country's top player Li Na
said during the recent Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo that she was becoming increasingly nervous about the intense pressure to achieve the "unrealistic goal" of medals at the Games.
Li, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, advanced to the final 16 in Tokyo last week before being dumped out of the tournament.
Sun, director of the Administrative Center of Tennis, said keeping her players relaxed is a top priority.
"I understand Li and I know she is under heavy pressure," Sun told China Daily.
"I know players are human beings, and I understand the feeling when the whole nation is watching you and expecting a lot from you because I was also a professional athlete some years ago."
A former volleyball player, Sun helped China win three world championships in the 1980's.
"We have been thinking about the right way to relax the players a little bit and we have taken some measures."
In a bid to help the rebellious Li, the center appointed her husband Jiang Shan as her coach, even though Jiang has no coaching qualifications and achieved little of note as a player.
Family involvement is not infrequent in international tennis, but a husband-wife coaching set-up is unprecedented in Chinese professional sporting history.
Romance is prohibited in most national teams to keep athletes focused on their games. Table tennis players and gymnasts even face the prospect of dismissal if caught engaged in physical displays of affection.
"I simply wanted her to feel better on the intense WTA Tour, so we did something hardly seen before in China's sporting history," Sun added.
China's hopes for tennis success in Beijing rose after Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won gold in the women's doubles at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Adding to expectations is its female players' speedy improvements in the world rankings in recent years, with four now in the top 100 - Li (ranked 17), Zheng Jie (33), Peng Shuai (42) and Sun Tiantian (80).
"There's more pressure after what happened in Athens," said Li. "China will want to win gold in every sport, not just tennis."
But Sun believes Olympic gold is the top task for domestic players in light of the strong state support they receive. In contrast, European and American players usually fund their own careers as they chase down titles.
"For sure the Olympic Games is the most important tournament for Li and her teammates," she said.
"The authorities have invested so much money in coaching and sponsorship for women's tennis, and they offer everything they need to improve on the Tour, so it's the players' responsibility to compete for their country."
China ratcheted up the pressure on its female players last month to ensure they are at the top of their game come summer 2008.
First-round exits will not be considered acceptable and as of June this year players who are eliminated early may have to forfeit their prize money.
Chinese players are now training at a base in Jiangmen. They will leave for the United States
after the Spring Festival.