CHINA'S PENG Shuai spaced out just before reaching planet Venus.
The second seeded Williams played a nail-biting second round match against a strong-willed Shuai before prevailing 6-2, 6-7 (6), 6-2 at the $6,00,000 Bangalore Open on Wednesday.
The world No. 7 struggled with her serve and committed as many as 15 double faults. For the unseeded Chinese, the end was disheartening to lose a golden opportunity of upsetting the American. Despite being a set down, Shuai saved two match points in the second set tiebreak. She held her nerves and won four consecutive points to push the six-time Grand Slam champion to play the decider.
Had Venus not played her heart out in the third set, the double fault on one of the two match points could have cost her dearly. But a champion knows how to play like one. No matter how the match is placed, the experience and deliverance always comes through.
The 6-foot-1 Williams, with a lunging stride and long arms, seemed to return all the cornered forehands from Shuai. But the Chinese turned out to be a better opponent than she was expected to be. The world No. 58 — who has a history of upsetting players like Elena Dementieva, Kim Clijsters and Dinara Safina — had nothing to lose but everything to gain from her performance.
Her ability to play scintillating passing shots and good second serves were definitely some of the positives of her game. She had only one double fault and her first serve percentage at 62 was seven higher than Venus's (55). The final set made everyone sweat. No one wanted to see Williams crashing out. Right at the start, Shuai seemed to be running out of steam and allowed the American to earn breaks thrice & shatter her dream.
After the match, Venus said she wouldn’t have nightmares about the number of double faults. "I have committed more double faults in my career. In tennis you have to put everything behind and move on,” she said. On the bounce, Williams said: "If it was high for me then it has to be really bad for my opponent."
However, top seeded Serbian Jelena Jankovic had it easy against Croatian Sanda Mamic. The Australian Open semifinalist drubbed Mamic 6-2, 6-2 to enter the third round. An early break of serve did not stop or unnerve the world No. 4 as she began her campaign on a good note. Jankovic seemed to adjust well to the bouncy courts by using more spin in her shots. Mamic did try to match but failed.
Jankovic agreed the bounce made it tough but it was all about adjustment. "I have never played on such courts before. I am glad for this experience."
Great will of China
NOT TOO long ago tennis in China was never taken seriously. It was a sport often mistaken for badminton or table tennis. When players held tennis racquets in their hands people called them badminton players.
Players took up the sport only to stay fit. Girls had the added incentive of wearing flashy tennis skirts and pants. The concept of one coach for each player was alien.
Zi Yan was one such girl living in China's rural province of Sichuan. She was introduced to the sport in order to stay fit. Yan's mother would frequently visit a friend. There, the six-year-old Yan took up the game with her friend, whose father was a coach, "just for fun".
The prospect and exhilaration of executing an ace made her fall in love with the sport.
She kept learning and it was only a few years after school that she was noticed.
"A coach thought I moved fast. He always thought I could be a professional player," says Yan, now 23 and ranked 55 in the singles.
It was only after she was approached that she was made aware of the seriousness of the discipline. Yan was soon on her state team and began a journey she feels has changed her life forever.
Yan now sits pretty with one WTA title (Guangzhou International) and 14 doubles titles. In doubles she was ranked as high as No.4 in 2006. She is currently ranked 13.
Yan has some creditable performances in singles too. She had a spectacular run at the Rogers Cup where she entered the semifinals before losing to World No. 1 Justine Henin.
Till 2002, there was not a single Chinese in the world top 100. Last year, there were three in the top-50.
According to Yan, the breakout moment for women's tennis in China came in 2004 when the hitherto unknown duo of Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won the doubles gold at the Athens Olympics.
"People watched in amazement as they won the gold. This was the time they sat up and took notice," the ever-smiling Yan says.
How has China managed to produce so many world-class players in a matter of a few years?
Yan says government support helped them match international standards.
"If you are at the top level the government and the association takes care of everything. Earlier, a group of girls would get one coach but now we all have different coaches," explains Yan.
In China, sport is viewed as a tool for national glory, not individual accomplishment.
"We were never told to improve our rankings. We were instead asked perform for our country," says Yan proudly.
Has China adopted a secretive system to grab medals at the Olympics?
"I don't think so. No secrets. We are training hard," says Yan, not revealing more.
Though Yan and her other successful compatriots, like this year's Australian Open doubles champion Tiantian, 2006 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Li Na, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai, are not as famous as Sania Mirza, they have played a pioneering role for their country. Those like Peng Shuai have also achieved more.