Zhang Shuai may be the world No. 38, but as China’s top-ranked tennis player she commands more media attention than some grand slam champions.
Half an hour after losing her first-round match to Britain’s Jo Konta at last week’s Wuhan Open in the hometown of Asia’s first major singles winner, Li Na, about 50 Chinese journalists rushed to the huge main press conference room to grill Zhang about her performance.
With Li now retired, the hunt is very much on for China’s next tennis superstar.
“Not everyone can be like Li Na,” Zhang said in an interview at the Wuhan Open in Hubei province, central China. “If you ask a Swiss, who is the next Roger Federer? No one can tell you who the next Federer is.”
Although Chinese authorities have been expanding the game since tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988, Li’s victories at the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open not only turned her into a global multi-million dollar brand but also proved to be a game changer for the sport.
China now has nine women ranked inside the top 200 while 17-year-old Xu Shilin became the country’s first junior world No. 1 last year.
China hosts 12 events on the women’s and men’s Tours and 40 second-tier tournaments compared to only a handful before Li’s breakthrough.
Cities such as Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai are fueling the Chinese tennis boom by building state-of-the-art facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Million dollar question
“The ambition to find the next Li Na is very big,” Jorge Salkeld, senior vice president of the tennis division of Octagon which owns the Wuhan Open, said in an interview at the event.
Although absent from the Wuhan Open because she is about to give birth to her second child, Li’s presence looms large in the city of Wuhan, which has invested $225 million in a 33-acre tennis facility.
Large advertising billboards promoting the Wuhan Open with Li, a tennis racket flung over her shoulder, are plastered all over this booming city of 10 million. Inside the tennis stadium, large photographs of Li adorn the walls.
“The next grand slam winner from China, that’s the million dollar question,” said Salkeld, who spends about five months of the year in China.
“But they’re coming. My prediction is that in five, six, seven years you are going to have 10 girls in the top 100. They are working hard, there is the volume and there is the funds behind it.”
Tennis is so popular in central Hubei province, the Wuhan Open received 5,000 applications from university students for 800 volunteering jobs during the event.
Meanwhile on the court 15 million people now play tennis in China, according to the International Tennis Federation, up from one million in 1988.
Although that may sound like a lot, the national sport of table tennis is played by 300 million people, including 10 million who play competitively, according to Business Insider.
While table tennis is easily accessible to the masses because it’s cheap, tennis is very much an aspirational sport for China’s emerging middle class with disposable income. For example, it will cost $3 an hour to rent a table tennis court for an hour in Beijing, compared to $15 for a tennis court.
However, with a population of 1.3 billion, competition in China is strong and playing sports “is a way for many families to have their kids do something important,” said Salkeld.
Li joined the state-sponsored sports system in Wuhan when she was aged five. It was so rigid, she would occasionally cry herself to sleep at night.
“From the age of 11, I’d be hearing a coach behind me yelling, ‘Stupid,’ or ‘Are you a pig?'” Li wrote in her autobiography “Playing Myself.”
After the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) relaxed some of its strict rules and allowed a few older players — including Li and former US Open semifinalist Peng Shuai — to set their own tournament schedules and choose their own coaches.
Instead of handing over 65% of all earnings, they were allowed to keep about 90% of it but would have to pay for their travel and coach.
It is perhaps no surprise all three Chinese women ranked inside the top 100 — Zhang, 70th-ranked Wang Qiang and 79th-ranked Zheng Saisai – all hail from the municipality of Tianjin in northeastern China.
The Tianjin system gives players more flexibility than in other areas in China in the way they train and which coaches they can use.
“Everybody is really positive, we cheer for each other,” said Zheng, China’s third-highest ranked player who is coached by former Italian pro Roberto Antonini. “Whoever has a good result, we support. This is a really good environment.”
Zheng, 22, was one of five Chinese players handed a wild card by Wuhan Open organizers.
The 27-year-old Zhang, the daughter of a soccer player father and basketball player mother, is having a breakthrough year. Having never won a grand slam singles match before, she reached the Australian Open quarterfinals as a qualifier a few months after contemplating retirement.
Dozens of Chinese fans in Wuhan watched Zhang’s practice session before her match against Konta, snapping pictures on their phones.
Zhang said she doesn’t mind the extra attention and comparisons with Li Na.
“I don’t feel so much pressure,” she said. “I like to play in China very much. A few years ago, we didn’t have the chance to play big tournaments at home.
“Now we are very lucky to get some wild cards. The young players have a chance to play big tournaments, they can watch how the top players play.”