China push for next 'Federer'
Guangzhou - They've produced an NBA all star. Their footballers have cracked the English Premiership. Now the search is on for the next Roger Federer.
As China grooms its male athletes to compete at the elite level in sports traditionally dominated by the West, the next frontier is tennis.
While Chinese athletes are quickly branching beyond their mainstays such as table tennis, badminton and diving with the country's growing economic clout, tennis has been a laggard. Although the Chinese women have shined in recent years, the male tennis players have struggled to match the success.
The big gap was evident as China prepared to host some of the region's top players at the Asian Games in the southern city Guangzhou. With organisers unveiling the team competition draw on Thursday, China was easily seeded first in the women's draw, led by grand slam semifinalist and No. 11-ranked Li Na. By contrast, the men were seeded fifth behind Taiwan, Japan, Uzbekistan and India - even though there are few Asian men in the top echelons of tennis. The highest-ranked man from the People's Republic of China playing in Guangzhou is Zhang Ze, a lowly 308 on the ATP list.
Yet Chinese team officials and observers expect the imbalance to change soon, pointing to their strong pool of rising men's talent.
The longer incubation period for men's tennis is because of the intensely competitive nature of the professional circuit. But the careful cultivation of the men through foreign coaching and regular touring will soon start paying dividends, Chinese coach Lu Ling told reporters on the sidelines of the draw.
"The current crop of players are relatively young. And in keeping with international norms, we signed them up for a lot of foreign tournaments starting at an early stage, from juniors to the senior level," Lu said. "Our goal is to break into the top 100 in two or three years."
Lu said his players view their female counterparts as a source of motivation. Li and compatriot Zheng Jie announced the arrival of Chinese women's tennis by both making the Australian Open semifinals last year. Zheng, the world No 26, also made the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 and boasts two Grand Slam doubles titles. Besides Li and Zheng, Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai are also in the top 100.
"They think, 'If they girls can do it, then the boys should have a chance too,"' Lu said.
ATP International chief executive Brad Drewett told a recent edition of the tour's TV show "ATP World Tour Uncovered" that time will tell for China.
"It's just a matter of laying the foundations, having the programs in place, having good coaching," Drewett said. "And all those things are in place here in China, so it will come."
Normally confined to the Futures and Challenger tournaments in the minor leagues of men's tennis, the Chinese men took advantage of wild card entries to steal some of the limelight from the world's best during the ATP's recent China swing in October.
Zhang pushed former No. 3-ranked Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia to three sets at the Shanghai Masters tournament, while compatriot Yan Bai upset another former top 10 player Radek Stepanek in straight sets.
A regional tennis official also predicted progress but said a top 10 player may be a distant goal.
"I see a young breed. The boys from China whom I saw playing this year - they seem to be pretty good. I think if they continue to play and show some results and the CTA (Chinese Tennis Association) gives them opportunities to go out and play ... They can do well," Asian Tennis Federation marketing director S. Uthrapathy told The Associated Press in Guangzhou, where he is serving a technical official.
He added, however, that while a top 100 or top 50 player was realistic, top 10 is a tough prospect.
China has also been hampered by the fewer number of men's professional tournaments in the country compared with the women's circuit and the lack of role models, Uthrapathy said. 1989 French Open winner, Chinese-American Michael Chang, was an early idol, but otherwise few Asian men have succeeded at the highest level. The most recent success story is retired Thai star Paradorn Srichaphan, who achieved a career high ranking of No 9 in 2003. Taiwan's Lu Yen-hsun is enjoying some of his best form late in his career after a surprise appearance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals earlier this year.
None other than Federer himself has also advised patience.
The men's game "has become very physical, very mental as well. You hardly see any teenagers right now making the breakthrough," the 16-time major champion told the ATP's television program. "So I think China needs some time, but I think once they make the breakthrough, it will be in a big way."
In Guangzhou, Thailand's Danai Udomchoke will be defending his men's singles gold from Doha four years ago, but the favorites are Taiwan's Lu, now world No. 37, world No. 44 Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin, who won his first title in St. Petersburg last month.
On the women's side, comeback queen Kimiko Date will seek a second Asian Games title 16 years after clinching gold on home soil in the Japanese city Hiroshima in 1994. China's Zheng is skipping her title defense with an injury, while Li is only competing in the team event, leaving Peng and Zhang carrying the host nation's hopes.
Other top contenders include Thai Tamarine Tanasugarn, India's Sania Mirza and Uzbekistan's Akgul Amanmuradova.
India, however, is missing men's doubles stars Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi - who teamed up to win the last two Asian Games titles - as well as Rohan Bopanna, who has found recent success with Pakistani doubles partner Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi.