Eastern Promise: The Rise Of Tennis In China

Joel Harvey

There are certain countries that have dominated tennis over the years, but China has not been one of them. Whilst players from the USA, Russia, Germany, and even Great Britain (sometimes) took titles, Chinese tennis champs have remained conspicuously absent. The times are changing however for Chinese tennis. In the past decade, tennis has seen a steady growth in popularity in the country. And now, they might just be ready to capitalise on this.

It was only a matter of time really. With a population of 1.386 billion, China is the largest populated country on the planet; playing the percentages game alone, you’d expect them to stand a better chance of creating great tennis players. But up until recently, the sport had never quite taken off in the eyes of the Chinese people. It was very much the chicken-and-the-egg scenario; China didn’t have great tennis players, so there wasn’t enough of a spotlight on the sport to help grow its popularity, and produce great tennis players.

But, when the Chinese government decided to invest more cash into developing the sport, things would change. Because when China invests in developing a sport, they really invest in developing a sport. Money was pumped into football, which resulted in the growth of the now very high-profile (and lucrative) Chinese Super League. And thanks to icons like Yao Ming, basketball has become a monumentally huge sport in China; one in which the government has ploughed millions into to find new Chinese stars of the court. Because hey, if in growing a particular sport means you also get to out-shine the Americans at their own game, it really is a no-brainer.

In tennis, the nation started to sit up and take notice when China won gold at the 2004 Olympics. The duo of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian triumphed in Athens, winning the women’s doubles competition and igniting tennis interest back home. This was followed up in 2006 by Zheng Jie and Yan Zi winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon’s doubles crowns. And then in 2011, Li Na secured China’s first grand slam title in tennis by winning the French Open. China, as well as the rest of the world, were now seeing the potential in Chinese tennis.

China now has a whopping 30,000 courts, and an estimated 14 million people that regularly play tennis in the country. Because of the success of women like Li Na, the sport became a big deal in the country. But despite this, Chinese champions have been hard to come by since Na. Currently, the country has three women ranked in the WTA 100, and no men at all in the ATP 100. Li Na retired in 2014 and in doing so, she left a gaping hole in Chinese tennis that’s waiting to be filled.

But there is exciting emerging talent in China. 17-year old Wu Yibing could be the player to take Chinese tennis to the next level. It might be very early on in his career to pin an entire nation’s hopes on him, but the feeling is that Yibing could be the Yao Ming of men’s tennis. And perhaps the pressure is already too much for such a young man. He recently commented:

“I think we don’t need to [have] too [much] pressure to be the same like Li Na, but we have to try to be at that level and work harder every day.

“Sometimes when I lose I want to give up,

“I have to keep my mind tough.”

Will Yibing live up to the high expectations set of him, and make a Li Na style breakthrough in men’s tennis? Time will tell. But one thing’s for sure, if it’s not him, then China will eventually produce a men’s champion; because the sun is definitely rising on tennis in the east.

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