East Asia’s Rise to Tennis Prominence

As the 2011 installment of the French open came to a conclusion, there were three stories that captured people's attention. One of which was Roger Federer proving that he isn't over the hill just yet, as he ended the 43-match winning streak of Novak Djokovic. Another story was Rafael Nadal capturing his sixth Roland Garros title, equalling Bjorn Borg's record. Yet the story that may well have a more lasting impact was that of Li Na's victory in the women's final against Francesa Schiavone.

Li became the first-ever Chinese player to win a major title and talk has begun as to whether China will eventually become a tennis powerhouse. The journey for Li herself has been a long one given that she is 29-years-old and she only reached her first slam final earlier this year at the Australian Open. Her journey to the top has been somewhat fragmented because of injuries and taking some time out in order to complete a journalism course at university.

Li isn't the only Chinese that has been making in-roads in the women's game. China currently has four players in the top 100, including Li, who has moved up to No. 4. Elsewhere, there is Shuai Peng, ranked No. 20, who despite never having won a singles tournament other than winning gold at the 2010 Asian Games, is having her best year to date. Shuai Zhang occupies No. 76, whilst Zheng Jie is No. 80, though Zheng has been a semifinalist at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, as well as winning doubles titles at both of those events with her compatriot, Yan Zi.

The Chinese men, however, aren't doing quite so well. Their highest ranked player is Yan Bai at No. 348.

Perhaps the effect Li's win will have in China is overstated, but it's hard to believe that out of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, not one was inspired to go and hit a tennis ball after witnessing Li make history.

China's rise in tennis is by no means an isolated occurrence in the world of "western" sport. East Asian nations have been making waves in sport for a few years now. In 2002, Japan and South Korea hosted the FIFA World Cup and South Korea finished in fourth place at that tournament. In golf, South Korea's K.J. Choi is a perennial challenger in major tournaments and his fellow countryman, Y.E. Yang, became the first Asian player to win a major when he won the 2009 PGA Championship.

East Asians have long been at the top of most cue sports, such as 9-ball pool, but now numerous Chinese players are breaking through and winning some of snooker's top tournaments. In fact, snooker is now so popular in China that it now hosts one of the very few ranking tournaments on the snooker calendar.

One thing that immediately leaps to mind when thinking about East Asian sportspeople is their work ethic. Soccer teams like South Korea, North Korea, and Japan are all organized outfits that will run for the full 90 minutes. This mentality may be demonstrated best in Ji-Sung Park, a midfielder at Manchester United. It is also a trait that is obviously present in Li. To continually strive to better yourself, even at an age when most players' careers take a downward trajectory, speaks volumes about her personality and desire to work. Her work ethic is also clear on court, as she is a battler that rarely gives up on a ball.

Besides work ethic, they also appear to be mentally strong, thus they rarely get flustered or collapse under the pressure. K.J. Choi tends to quietly go about his business with par after par and whilst he hasn't won a major title, it's not because he has choked, rather his opponents have just been that little bit better.

It's hard to say whether China, or indeed East Asia, will take the tennis world by storm, but the necessary tools are in place and even if this is as good as it gets for China, then they have a lot to be proud of. Li is just what the women's game needs right now. In a game dominated by power-hitting with very little thought, Li is a breath of fresh air with her variety of shots and great personality, which comes to the fore in post-match interviews. She may not shape the future of tennis, but she has certainly shaped the present and for that, we are grateful.

Comments and Conversation

June 14, 2011

Mert Ertunga:

Very informative Luke. Strange about the gap between Chinese women and men’s success on the Tour.

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