Li Na, the former French and Australian Open champion, was the biggest trailblazer for tennis in Asia. She was the first Grand Slam singles champion from the continent and the first player representing an Asian country to appear in a Grand Slam singles final before that.
There have been a handful of Asian tennis players who have impressed since, most notably Naomi Osaka, the reigning US Open champion, and Kei Nishikori, who reached the US Open final in 2014. But few players have been able to replicate Li Na’s consistency at the top level, especially from China.
However, in the last year, there have been a number of Chinese women players who have steadily climbed the ranks, with world No 22 Wang Qiang’s 2018 push leading from the front.
There are four Chinese players in the top 100 and five in the top 200. Asian Games gold medallist Wang Qiang, who is playing in the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, is seen as a worthy successor, if not the next Li Na.
Big push for women
There has been a big push towards women’s tennis tournaments in Asia and China hosts several of them, which is an added advantage for the local players.
“[China] have so many good players, but after Li Na retired, we have never been able to break the line,” Zheng Saisai, the China No 3, told Scroll.in on the sidelines of the L&T Mumbai Open. “So it’s really nice to see Wang Qiang play unbelievably well this season.”
She added, “It’s good for all other Chinese players, including me; we see the chance. If she can do it then why not me?”
Zheng, the top seed, was on Friday ousted by a resilient Luksika Kumkhum of Thailand, who scored a hard-fought 3-6 6-4 6-4 win.
The world No 47 had spent six months away from the circuit, between last September and this March, due to injury. Her breakthroughs came in her home country as she beat compatriot Wang Yafan to win the Zhengzhou title in April. She reached the Anning final in May, where she lost to Irina Khromacheva, before agonisingly retiring from the Jiangxi Open in July.
Zheng then reached the second round at Wimbledon, where she played world No 1 Simona Halep after beating Wang Qiang. In the upset-marred Grand Slam, Zheng stretched the first set to 5-7 but was bagelled in the second. Talking about that match, she praised the Romanian for being a “a wall” and aspired to that level of fitness.
“It was really nice to play on Court 1,” said Zheng. “She is No 1 and very good physically so it tough to keep focus on every point competing with her because she is not giving you any easy mistakes. It’s easy to play a close match with her but tough to beat her. You can play good points but can’t beat her and that is why she is No 1.”
Her taste of the big courts at Grand Slams has motivated Zheng further to make deep runs at the four Major tournaments. “At Grand Slam you want to play good because you are representing your country,” she said. “There is always pressure to play every round [because] it’s like competing against yourself. Next year I hope I will have a good start and a solid season.”
By most standards, 2018 was a very good season for Zheng as well, considering the time she lost due to her injury layoff. She won her first WTA title, reached the final in two others and got into the top-50.
“[It has been] an up and down season, now I am just too tired,” she said. “I played too many [tournaments] in a row and came here to Mumbai where the conditions are really hot. I played pretty well on comeback, but still there are many opportunities I didn’t catch. It has still been a good year for me.”
In some ways, the loss as the $125K WTA tournament must not bother the world No 47 much, as she is not defending any points from last season. She came to Mumbai just to play a bit more due to her curtailed season.
After her first-round win against Indian wild card Karman Kaur Thandi, Zheng had said that she was playing without any pressure of winning. “This is my second time coming to India, I just want to know more about the country and enjoy, not just think about winning,” she had said.
But the time in Mumbai has given her some more match practice before she ends her season. Her preparation for 2019 will start soon, beginning at home in Shenzhen before hoping to make a good run at the Australian Open.
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