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Australian Open 2024: Zheng Qinwen and the steady, understated rise of Chinese tennis

China has overhauled the tennis system at home and results are showing; Eight players, seven women and one man, are currently in the top 100. Nine Chinese players were in the singles main draw of the Australian Open this year.

Screenshot 2024 01 23 030731Following her 6-0, 6-3 win over France’s Oceane Dodin in the fourth round of the Australian Open on Monday, Zheng Qinwen has emerged, in terms of both ranking and form, as the front-runner to reach the final in Melbourne this week.

The lopsided top section of the draw, which has seen all the top seeds bow out early, has opened up an unlikely opportunity for the 21-year-old World No.15, who has a big serve, topspin-laden groundstrokes, and aggressive playing style, to become the first Chinese player since Li Na to reach the latter stages of a singles Major.

The achievement would be an early culmination of China’s recent tennis boom — where an emerging set of talented players of a sport with increasing popularity have been given institutional support.

Tennis enjoys unprecedented popularity in China. A report published by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in 2021 states that nearly a quarter (22.9%) of global tennis is played in China, despite the country not boasting of a high number of courts, clubs, or academies. According to Vogue, the country’s tennis boom is as much about the sport as it is about it being a “lifestyle and fashion phenomenon”, pointing to its ties to aspirations of upward mobility of social-status.

But recreational popularity hardly translates to professional sporting success; the same ITF report’s 2019 edition stated that 9.2% of global tennis is played in India, a country that has not been able to produce a single top 100 singles player in the four years since. And China was never a historical tennis destination. Olympic sports and other racquet sports like badminton and table tennis have enjoyed greater success in the region. Despite some successful doubles players, two-time Major winner Li Na is the only global tennis star from the country.

She retired in 2014. Until 2022, no Chinese man had ever won a main draw singles match at a Grand Slam.

More recently, however, tennis has received major government backing. Facilities were overhauled, grassroots academies have been provided focus, more tournaments have been organised, former players and foreign experts have been roped in as coaches. China also has the advantage of dominating the Asian swing of the professional tours. One of the 9 Masters 1000 ATP events takes place in Shanghai, and until recently, the year-ending WTA Finals took place in Shenzhen. Many other big-ticket events also take place there in September and October.

The results of all of the above are there to see. Eight players, seven women and one man, are currently in the top 100. Nine Chinese players were in the singles main draw of the Australian Open this year. Collectively, 2023 may have been Chinese women’s best-ever season, with three separate tour-level title winners.

No Sino star is displaying the success of the country’s recent boom more than Zheng, who is knocking on the door of a top 10 debut this week. While players of Li’s generation all came with one-dimensional aggressive baseline playing styles, Zheng, who is now based out of Barcelona and has worked with foreign coaches, is markedly different. She can smash down aces on demand, plays with more topspin as opposed to flatter hitting, and prefers to shorten points with variety.

She herself credits this to exposure. “Obviously, 15 years ago in China, tennis was just beginning, so we don’t have much opportunity to improve our system of coaching,” Zheng was quoted as saying by the WTA website. “Now after 15 years, we know more about the world, we know how everybody is playing, we try a lot of different coaches to really improve our games. So all of us are starting to have more knowledge about tennis.”

Her quarterfinal is against the 75th-ranked Anna Kalinskaya on Wednesday. No other player in her half of the draw is ranked above 50. A gaping opportunity has presented itself to take her career and Chinese tennis to the next level this week, but either way, the country is on its way up.

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