An article looking at the latest tennis duo from China, and how some of the world’s less-reported sports are producing China’s future athletic stars.
For all of about five seconds, there was discussion about an “all Chinese” final in the Australian Open. The People’s Daily newspaper had already crowned Li Na and Zheng Jie — the Chinese female tennis players who both managed to advance into the final four to play against Serena Williams and Justine Henin, respectively — “two golden flowers.”
And then it was over.
Defending champion Williams stopped 16th seeded Li Na in a two-hour match, winning 6-7 (4), 6-7 (1). If you followed ESPN‘s account of the events, Henin “thrashed a helpless” Zheng Jie, 6-1, 6-0, in a game that took less than 60 minutes to complete.
Losing in the semifinals to Williams and Henin is nothing less than stellar, as both Li Na and Zheng Jie’s march to the semifinal matches is at least commendable, possibly historic given this is the first time two Chinese players have made it this far in an Australian Open. Right now, both Li Na and Zheng Jie should be considered two tennis stars on the verge of overtaking two other records that no other Chinese tennis athlete can yet claim: breaking into the top-10 rankings or winning a Grand Slam. They’re almost there. And while almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, the two are part of a growing sports machine in China that has its athletes on their way toward star status.
It’s no secret, China enjoys its heroic athletes. Each time a Chinese athlete accomplishes another first for the country, the people are right there cheering. Nationalism aside, China is just starting to see its sports mold homegrown athletes into world superstars. In interviews with sports promoters, coaches and athletes, all have constantly repeated the mantra that once a Chinese athlete takes home the top prize in any international event, the popularity of said sport explodes.
Forgetting Yao Ming for a minute, China’s sports stars are coming through the ranks in more non-traditional sports, at least in comparison to the revenue-driven, media-savvy sense of western sports. Forget football, basketball or baseball. China is a country where diver Guo Jingjing is a goddess, snooker prodigy Ding Junhui can dominate the front of sports newspaper pages, and Liu Xiang could fill the stands at the Bird’s Nest if it was announced Beijing was about to hold an international track and field meet, all 76,000+. But you’d be hard-pressed to find the aforementioned names anywhere outside of China — discounting the 2008 Olympic Games, of course.
Bringing Yao Ming back for a moment: One has a better chance of finding a Chinese person that can recall the gold medal-winning lineup of the women’s quadruple sculls at this past Olympic Games than one does of finding someone who knows the starting lineup to Manager Yao Ming’s Shanghai Sharks basketball team. South Korean Y.E. Yang’s victory over Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship was said to be a positive for golf in China. And given China is sending world half-pipe champion Liu Jiayu to the upcoming Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, there could even be a snowboarding household name in China come March 2010.
So Li Na and Zheng Jie didn’t take home the top prize … this time. Barring a career-ending injury, the two are almost certainly destined for tennis infamy. It might be too early to place them alongside names such as Guo Jingjing, Ding Junhui, or Liu Xiang, but one might as well leave the two slots open for the tennis duo from China.
— Zachary Franklin
Links and Sources:
- People’s Daily: “Serena Williams Stops Li Na’s Fairytale Run to Reach Australian Open Final”
- People’s Daily: “China Celebrates Zheng, Li for Australian Wins”
- ESPN: “Despite Roadblocks, Justine Henin Back in Australian Open Final”