x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Li Na's victory to spawn a boom in China's towns

Li's French Open victory, a first grand slam win for an Asian, will herald change in attitude towards sport in country.

Fans celebrate after watching Li Na win the French Open in Wuhan, Li's hometown, in central China. Feng Zi / EPA
Fans celebrate after watching Li Na win the French Open in Wuhan, Li's hometown, in central China. Feng Zi / EPA

In 1974, Olga Morozova reached the final in consecutive grand slam events, the French Open and Wimbledon. Russians previously were not known for their mastery of tennis or even any interest in it but, apparently, some parents back in the Soviet Union took note of Morozova's success; a generation later Russians surged into the ranks of elite women's players.

If Li Na's victory in the French Open, the first by an Asian in a grand slam event, sparks a similar wave of enthusiasm for the game, we can perhaps expect a flood of elite Chinese players along about 2030.

Tennis is a simple game to play but an expensive one to master, without government support.

China may now be encouraged to give more aid to tennis starlets, and its increasingly affluent population may also be willing to pay for years of coaching at the Bollettieri Academy, or its like.

"Throughout China's history people knew nothing of tennis. Now we're standing on the summit of the world game," Zhang Yueming, the general manager of the Green Bank Tennis Club in Beijing told the Associated Press.

Paradorn Srichaphan, a Thai who reached No 9 in the men's rankings in 2003, said: "I'm sure that a lot of Chinese kids will play tennis more because of Li Na."

Curiously, China's sports ministers, who focus almost entirely on the Olympics (as frustrated football fans can attest), put Li's victory in the context of London 2012.

"There is no doubt this will encourage and inspire Chinese athletes in other fields to undergo hard training, strengthen their confidence and make excellent achievements in the London 2012 Olympics," China's Olympic Committee said in a letter.

Those revelling in Li's victory seem centred in Pacific Rim nations. If India and its 1.2 billion people took heart from Li at Roland Garros, we have not heard.

China's communist government still sees tennis as a bourgeois activity, but one of their own lifting a cup could change some minds.

Li is not alone in the world, as Morozova was in 1974. Compatriot Peng Shuai is ranked No 20, and Zhang Jie and Zhang Shuai are in the final 25 of the top 100. They clearly are competent, but none has the look of a future No 1.

That world-beating Chinese girl is probably about three years old at the moment, and has just been handed a racket.