Since Li Ting and Tian Tian Sun won the Athens Olympic gold medal in doubles, China has been knocking on the doors of international tennis intermittently. But never has its presence been felt as strongly. Jie Zheng and Na Li have finally scripted China’s coming-of-age story with their double-charge to the Australian Open semi-finals.
The pint-sized Zheng had made it to the semifinal at Wimbledon in 2008, but Li registered her best performance at Grand Slams when she beat Venus Williams in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
In a game where prodigies are found in adolescence and lost by 25, Zheng, at 26, and Li, at 27, are just about leaping into the elite class.
According to Doug McCurdy, who worked with the Chinese tennis federation from 2005-07 as an International Tennis Federation consultant, the girls have taken some time to make their mark because of the lack of match practice allowed in the Chinese structure.
“China has a provincial system in tennis,” McCurdy told Hindustan Times in Mumbai on Wednesday. “In that, the players play about six national tournaments in a year; this compared to the 13-16 international tournaments that the Europeans or Americans play. So when they turn professional there is a big experience gap.
“That’s why Zheng and Li are coming out a little later than anticipated. At the highest level, players should be competing 25-26 weeks per year; the Chinese were not doing that. They had a lot of low-intensity training but lack match experience.”
Zheng and Li have both come out of the tough training structure, many label as ‘Communist’. They have concentrated on numbers, broadened the base and are putting athletes through the grind. Though India has the numbers, McCurdy, who is now a consultant with the All India Tennis Association is not sure a system like that can work here.
“People there take sports seriously. At 13-14 children are brought to sports camps and tend to sign contracts with the provincial teams,” said McCurdy.
“In India, for the people who can afford to play tennis, the priorities are different. They would rather have children securing their academic future, and that’s only fair. The Chinese give sport more importance, and it is a much better alternative to a good life for them.”
Zheng and Li have separated from the national federation and are free to sketch their own schedules. They also retain most of their prize money as opposed to 65 per cent of that going into the sports system earlier.
According to McCurdy, breaking away from the federation may not be a direct factor for their improved performance. But “they are happier,” since choosing their own path.
And it’s been a good ride so far. Zheng will play Justine Henin while Li takes on Serena Williams for a spot in the final.