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Asia Tennis Travels Roundtable: What's the state of tennis in China?

BEIJING, China – In honor of tennis’ Asian swing, Courtney Nguyen sat down with three prominent tennis journalists in China to discuss the state of the sport and what the future holds after Li Na’s retirement.

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. Bendou Zhang

Tennis writer for TiTan Sports, the largest sports newspaper in China.

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. Jinyi Hu

Executive Chief Editor for Sports Illustrated China.

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. Renjie Liu

Tennis writer for How long have each of you been covering tennis in China?

Liu: I got the job at in 2003. I got the intern job as the sports China editor in my last year in college in 2002, before the first ever Shanghai Masters Cup. So my first experience working with sports editing or sports news reporting was in tennis. In 2003 we launched a tennis page and ever since I've just been covering tennis.

Zhang: I have been doing this for more than ten years.

Hu: I've been covering the sport since 2005. How has tennis in China changed during your tenures?

Liu: It changed dramatically because back in 2004 it was a very new sport for us. Even for me I don't think people around me knew the sport very well. But after Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics it became huge. With Li Na winning Guangzhou, people recognized that we Chinese people could play pretty good tennis. Then when Li beat Venus Williams at the Beijing Olympics, that was the next step for Chinese tennis because people finally recognized that we have some world-class tennis athletes. Then Li made it to the top ten after 2010 at the Australian Open and then she won the French Open in 2011, it became a real deal for us. Ever since the sport is becoming more and more popular and we have a huge fan base now. According to studies by CTA, we have over 12 million people who play tennis regularly. That's a big increase compared to four years ago, when we had 8 million. 

Zhang: I remember I went to my first Olympic games in 2004 in Athens. My newspaper sent a big group, like 14 or 15 reporters. I was one of them. Some colleagues joked with me, “Why you? Why are you coming here? Our girls will lose in the first round and you can go home.” But we got the gold medal, and since then, Chinese tennis totally changed. The nature of our work changed, the number of tournaments travel to, the respect and attention, and also the working pressure. Ten years ago we didn't have an independent tennis page in our newspaper. We were kind of squeezed in with the "other sports" page. Then we had an independent tennis page. During the Grand Slams we had two pages. And when Li and Zheng Jie were both in the semifinals of the Australian Open, it was four pages, maybe even more -- and on the cover too.


Hu: Bendou has been covering the sport much longer than me. At the time of the 2004 the Olympic games, I had just graduated from university and just entered into the publishing arena. I worked for Sports Illustrated since 2006 and the first Sports Illustrated China cover was Zheng Jie and Yan Zi. I have the first cover of SI America and SI China side-by-side in my office now. The first one in the U.S. is baseball. The first one in China is tennis. Back then the China Open was still in the south of Beijing on some very old tennis courts. In 2009, they moved to this new National Tennis Center. I think it's changed a lot. 

Zhang: In the late 90s, the only tour event in China was the Shanghai Heineken Open. It was the first tournament I ever covered. Right now, I came from Guangzhou, went to Shenzhen, now I’m in Beijing, and then I’ll go to Shanghai. Four tournaments in a row. I’ve gotten more chances to travel to Grand Slams and ATP events as well. 

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​​Hu: It also gives more opportunity for people to come to China to cover the events because now we have four weeks in a row. 

Zhang: But tennis is always a small sport compared to soccer and basketball. When I see the opportunities my colleagues who cover basketball get I am a little bit jealous sometimes. But tennis is getting much bigger and bigger. Well it will take some time. You had Yao Ming before you had Li.

Liu: Before Li transformed to be a world-class athlete, tennis had a regular fan base. A small group who were really loyal fans for tennis. The most popular players were Roger Federer and Martina Hingis. Those two are tennis legends in China. But once Li exploded, she made up two-thirds of our website traffic. This year at the Australian Open we got maybe 16 million page views in one day when she made the final. That's not for the sports page. That's just for the tennis page. And when she won in 2011. it was somewhere around 11 million. So you can see the increase here. I have to assume Li's popularity has helped raise the profile of other tennis players in China as well. 

Liu: Besides Li, Federer is next. It's not like after Li we have Peng Shuai or Zheng Jie. Federer is the second player who contributes most traffic for our website. Then it's Novak Djokovic and then Maria Sharapova. Rafael Nadal is interesting because he's a good player and a legendary player. But Chinese fans are half and half about Nadal -- half the people love him, and half the people hate him. That half who hates him are Roger fans. 

Liu: He is way more popular than Rafa. He was never beaten here in Beijing and he won the Shanghai Masters. He tries so hard when he's here to speak Chinese or write Chinese characters. People love that and appreciate it. If you make the effort, we love you for it. So what has been the biggest change in tennis?

Liu: I would say the biggest change was that everything became more professional. Not just for the tennis media but also for the tournaments. The China Open and Shanghai Masters became more professional in tournament operation, media services, the fan watching service. The popularity of the sport is going up, and people no longer think it is only a rich person's sport.

Hu: The people around me know tennis now. I remember that in 2004 I graduated from university, I hadn't talked to anyone about tennis before. Now even my dad and mom ask me, "How was Li's retirement ceremony?"

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Zhang: I think more people, including my friends, realize what kind of job I have. Now they know what I'm doing and they ask me questions like, "Have you ever talked to Li?" And I say, "After every match." They get very excited. They want to know what she's like. There's an awareness -- more people are aware of what tennis is. 

Liu: One problem we have today is we don't have that much television airtime like in the states. CCTV for some reason didn't buy the TV broadcast rights for the WTA. So they only air a few important matches that Li played or only the Grand Slam matches. They don't air any other tour-level tournaments. But they still air the men's tennis tournaments. Why haven't we seen a breakthrough on the ATP for the Chinese men? 

Zhang: Because they don't have a Li yet. They don't have an example. They don't have someone to look up to yet. They don't have the motivation. Don't think these are poor guys. They're actually pretty rich. They feel comfortable in the system. Every expense is paid. And if they do well at the China National Games, they get very rich. So why work so hard, go through all the struggles, just to be ATP Top 100? If this generation doesn't work, maybe the next generation will. 

Liu: They have their Weibo account and every day they post pictures, take selfies having delicious food, they're traveling and having fun. They were even criticized by officials from the CTA for not working hard – that’s the real situation here.​

Hu: I don't think the boys are as motivated as the girls. I think now that Kei Nishikori is proving that Asian men can win. 

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Zhang: I also think it has to do with our history because we are a country with 5,000 years of history. The social system is a gendered hierarchy. Chinese men live too comfortable a life. 

Hu: It's Asian culture. Women have always had to work so hard because they are not given any preference.

Zhang: For girls your job is to find a good husband and make him happy. But the new China, the culture has changed. The women have found their independence so they thrive in the new social environment. That's why they're so good. 

Liu: Another reason is they only stayed in China to train and most of the time they don't travel abroad to compete with more high-level players. They only play Futures tournaments or very low-level ITF tournaments in China. That level of competition is not enough for them to grow and transform themselves to be a player who can play tour-level tournaments. I don't even see anyone emerging. It's hard for me to see that within the next five years we will have someone like a Nishikori. 

For China there is one special situation because of the One-Child Policy, a lot of the younger generation is the only child in their family. They have options. They don't have to be an athlete. To be an athlete you have to make sacrifices. You have to work every day on your fitness and your technique. That is hard work. The parents don't really encourage that. If I am from a rich family or even a middle class family I would encourage my kids to get more education and try to be a lawyer or a doctor. That's typical Asian thinking. With that kind of situation in China, the people who become athletes are either kids from poor families or kids who don't have access to education. So that leaves a very small pool of talent. So it's really hard for them to find really good athletes. That could be a reason -- and I may be wrong -- but based on my understanding, if I had a chance to be an athlete or go to college, my parents would have made the decision for me. Education. Parents don't really want their kids to have that kind of hard life. What do you see for the future of Chinese tennis?

Liu: It's really hard for me to even think about it right because I think we'll be going through a very hard time for the next five years or so. Li was so successful I can't imagine any other person can beat her in this way. For the achievements, for the impact, the personality -- nobody can replace her. We could have a huge downfall for the next five years.

Zhang: I'm curious to see how many Chinese media will go to the Australian Open next year. Maybe far less. But I think for the next 10 years, Chinese tennis still has new direction and motivation. The first one is for the men. When can China have a tour-level player? Second, we'll never have a second Li. I think we have to sacrifice the quality for quantity. Maybe we don't have a top ten player anymore but we can have five or six or seven in the top 100, instead of just two or three right now. So still, China can be a strong tennis nation.

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Hu: I think there will be a big gap between Li and the next generation because Li was one of the very top players in the women's field. Based on potential, I don't think we'll have a top ten player in two or three years for the women. The business of this sport, there is the question of whether it will still be strong. But in the short term, I don't think it's a disaster because Li is still in the impression of people's minds. 

Zhang: As she said, Li’s retirement doesn't just leave a competitive void. Because of Li, China has so many tournaments. She's the main reason and now she's gone. Can the tournaments get enough spectators, sponsorships, and media in the future? Do you see China ever hosting a Fifth Slam?

Liu: For the tradition of tennis, I don't want that to happen. Tennis is a sport that is full of history. If you don't have history people don't feel it. As the youngest Grand Slam, Australian Open is so good in every way. Every year I go to Melbourne and I think this is something we have to learn. There are still things we need to do to get the job done here at the China Open and Shanghai Masters. If we can't improve those then there's no way we can think we have a Fifth Slam. There are other tournaments that have a much better reputation than the Chinese tournaments, like Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati. We still need to find the unique thing that makes the China Open or Shanghai Masters feel like it's special. Not just for Chinese tennis fans, but for people to want to travel here to watch tennis. Maybe in 20 years we could consider it.

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Hu: I think a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam. I agree with Bendou. I think the China Open and the ATP 1000 in Shanghai have a long way to go to be the best of their respective tournament levels. For the China Open, this is the 11th year, and you can see the audience in the stadium hasn't filled up. It's not just about the event and the facilities; it's also about the tennis culture in China. They have a long way to go. 

Zhang: Also the ideology of the Chinese people is to make everything big. I went to Guangzhou for a small WTA tournament, to the Shenzhen Open, a small ATP 250. It was very nice. What's wrong with just being a very nice small tournament? Give the locals more of a chance. If they come here to an ATP 500 tournament they'll lose in the first round or aren't even ranked high enough to play. So I would like to see all levels of the events in China, ATP Challengers, too. It's a more healthy structure. I think this year with the addition of the Shenzhen Open, we are the second country beside the U.S. to have all tournaments at the different levels. I think if we have all levels of tournaments -- even if we don't have a Fifth Slam -- we are a strong. What was Li's biggest impact?

Zhang: I think from the perspective of my job, she brought a lot of respect to my colleagues and I as Chinese journalists. It didn't just change our jobs but it changed how people in the world see the Chinese. It also proved when Chinese athletes say goodbye to our system they can get bigger success, which is a very good example for other sports.

Liu: She is a trailblazer and pioneer of China tennis who got people to know China tennis and Chinese tennis players as, more importantly, people. I would say her biggest impact is for western people to get to know modern Chinese people. Her personality is so unique and something the younger generation of Chinese people can really appreciate. We grew up with so much tradition and not much access to get to know the outside world. So with the country developing, we now get more chance to travel and get to know the outside world. She's not the stereotype of how Chinese people were historically. I would say that's her biggest impact as not just a Chinese tennis player but a Chinese athlete, ambassador and national hero.

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Hu: We finally had a female sports star in China. We know Yao Ming is very famous and internationally known all over Asia and all over the world. Before Li  there were no female athletes who got famous in that way. Li has become an icon for Chinese women in the world and before her, everyone thought Chinese women were very shy, did not make jokes and did not speak English. I think Li changed that image for foreigners. 

Hu: Do you remember that interview with Jon Wertheim and Li? Jon said she was "a feminist." I asked her about that and she looked shocked. "But I'm very traditional!" 

Zhang: She is very charming. If we had another athlete who could play very good tennis but was boring, we would feel less proud. I remember one time at the Australian Open, a British reporter turned to me and said very curiously, "She is very funny." I said, "Come on, we Chinese are funny! It's just you don't speak Chinese." What were your thoughts when Li announced her retirement?

Zhang: I think she achieved the goals of her season too early. Of course it's fantastic to win the Australian Open, but if she did not win it I think maybe she could have lasted longer. Maybe because of the win, especially at her favorite tournament, she lost her motivation a little bit. Also at Wimbledon, I think the split with Carlos hurt her. So she lost the motivation for the second time, and at the same time the knee is a big factor. To push a 32-year-old woman to play longer to go through all the injuries and the tough training, it's too cruel. Two Grand Slams, No. 2 -- we appreciate it already. Let her go on with her life. What is the effect of Li's retirement?

Liu: I don't want to talk about the negative effects, more positive effects. Every time I talk to the younger players they say Li's success makes them want to work harder because her success makes sense for us as Asian people. We are not tall, we are not as strong as the western people but we can still play good tennis. That confidence is going up because of her success. So they believe that without Li they can still make some noise on the world stage. Without Li, Peng made the semifinals of the U.S. Open. A very young girl, Wang Yafan made the semifinals at the Guangzhou Open a few weeks ago, beating very solid players along the way. We were really shocked but her coach was not surprised at all. He said, "We expect that. We expect a huge group of younger generation is coming up."

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So we are hoping over the next few years you will see more Chinese players who can be in the top 30 or top 20. But top ten or Grand Slam champions? I don't see that happening in the next five years. I know it is a process that every country needs to face at some point. Like in the U.S., if the Williams Sisters retire it's going to be the same situation as well. Maybe the Russians will dominate. Maybe the Germans will dominate. Then in 10 or 20 years the cycle happens again and maybe the United States finds another Serena.

Hu: I spoke to Carlos Rodriguez a few days ago and he said something that left an impression. He said that the very important thing is not to make another Li or want Li to come back, but to learn how to use her legacy. What she did in those years, Chinese girls and boys can learn a lot from that.

Zhang: I think Chinese tennis loses its bright star, its biggest icon, but the legacy will be there forever. But I do worry about the gap between this generation and the next generation, and also the market. I'm not sure if her leaving will make the market shrink a little bit especially with the WTA tournaments. I suppose as reporters we might be able to remain patient for the next generation, but the market won't be.

Zhang: Now I can take it easy for a few years. Now I can take a rest while we wait patiently for the next generation of Chinese players.