Judy Mur­ray Why China is show­ing it could be the next big ten­nis su­per­power

Olympic Games in Bei­jing did so much to help grow ten­nis in Asia as the sport took its chance in the world spotlight – and we are now see­ing the ben­e­fits

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

Iam in Shenzhen this week for the WTA Fi­nals – an event which un­der­lines the im­por­tance of the Olympic Games in spread­ing the gospel of sport. When I started trav­el­ling to ju­nior tour­na­ments across the world, around 25 years ago, Asian play­ers were con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence. But hav­ing the Olympics in Bei­jing in 2008 was a gamechange­r.

That brought ten­nis into Asia in a big way and when the Chi­nese do some­thing, they re­ally go for it. They have grown the game from the top down, build­ing some huge com­plexes, and now fund 25 Women’s Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion and As­so­ci­a­tion of Ten­nis Pro­fes­sion­als events.

If the win­ner in Shenzhen this week wins all her round-robin matches, she could walk away with $4.75mil­lion (£3.7mil­lion). That would be the big­gest sin­gle pay day in the sport, even out­strip­ping the grand slams. When I think about what has hap­pened with ten­nis in

Asia, I am amazed that some other sports – cricket, for ex­am­ple – have shown no in­ter­est in be­com­ing part of the Olympics. That fort­night is the sin­gle big­gest global show­case any sport can have.

Over the past two years, I have spent quite a bit of time in China with the WTA’S Come Play pro­gramme. The idea is to de­velop a ten­nis work­force of school­teach­ers and coaches.

The cul­ture here is so dif­fer­ent to what I am used to. The con­cept of pub­lic courts in parks does not re­ally ex­ist. Nor do recre­ational clubs and com­pe­ti­tions. The whole sys­tem of player de­vel­op­ment is based around iden­ti­fy­ing tal­ent early and hot­hous­ing the most promis­ing kids in acad­e­mies. It seems to be work­ing. You just have to look at the rank­ings to see that.

When I went to work with the WTA last year in Wuhan and Bei­jing, I dis­cov­ered that the schools have 50 kids in each class. They marched onto the court and im­me­di­ately stood in lines of 10, shoul­der to shoul­der. The dis­ci­pline is as im­pres­sive as the con­cen­tra­tion. I al­ways have an in­ter­preter with me, but the chil­dren are so good at re­peat­ing and copy­ing that all I have to do is a short demo of each ex­er­cise or game.

The chal­lenge with such an ap­proach is that it does not leave room for much in­di­vid­u­al­ity and cre­ativ­ity. I hope that my coach­ing method – which fo­cuses on fun skill-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties – in­spires the kids. I bring a va­ri­ety of brightly coloured pieces of play equip­ment – from bal­loons to bean bags to water bombs – and they seem to take a lot of en­joy­ment out of things we think are rel­a­tively sim­ple. I en­cour­age them to think out of the box. Ten­nis is a very cere­bral sport, af­ter all.

Ev­ery sport needs role mod­els and the most fa­mous Chi­nese player is Li Na, who won two ma­jors, the 2011 French Open and the Aus­tralian Open three years later. She had a fun game to watch as well as an en­gag­ing per­son­al­ity that peo­ple re­ally warmed to.

Five years af­ter her re­tire­ment, Li Na re­mains an out­lier. But Qiang Wang has climbed to a high of No12 in the world this year, aged 27. She is a real poster girl with a big game and a strik­ing look – I imag­ine she will be a big force in show­cas­ing ten­nis out here.

It would not sur­prise me if China be­comes a su­per­power in ten­nis over the next decade or so. The cul­ture of re­lent­less rep­e­ti­tion may have its draw­backs, but you can go a long way through hard work and a “don’t miss” men­tal­ity. Look at the Kore­ans, and the in­cred­i­ble level of suc­cess they have had in women’s golf.

In West­ern cul­tures, we tend to strug­gle with that dis­ci­plined mind­set. In our world, there are so many dis­trac­tions, so many other things to cap­ture peo­ple’s at­ten­tion and time. Per­haps life is just too easy nowa­days.

Still, I have a good feel­ing about the women’s game at this end-of-sea­son fi­nale. It is great to see so many dif­fer­ent game styles, per­son­al­i­ties, match-ups and back-sto­ries.

Last week, I walked the Great Wall of China with Ash­leigh Barty – one of my favourites. When­ever I have the op­por­tu­nity to ask the WTA for a player to help with a coach­ing clinic, I al­ways ask for Ash. She has great peo­ple skills and is so down to earth.

I am also ex­cited this week to watch the young Cana­dian Bianca An­dreescu in per­son for the first time. An­dreescu is only 19, but I love her fire­power and gritty, never-say-die at­ti­tude. She is young and ballsy, has the abil­ity to vary the pace and shape of her shots, and is not afraid of any­body. It is very easy for young play­ers to bow down in the face of Ser­ena Wil­liams, for ex­am­ple, but she main­tained her poise and self-be­lief so well in the US Open fi­nal to win her first ma­jor.

I also like fol­low­ing An­dreescu on Twit­ter. As with 15-year-old Coco Gauff, who won her first ti­tle in Linz a fort­night ago, Bianca is part of the so­cial-me­dia gen­er­a­tion. If we want to have more per­son­al­i­ties in our sport, we need ways to en­gage with them, and so­cial me­dia – for all its fail­ings – of­fers that chance.

I was in Linz to see Gauff ’s suc­cess. You often see sparse crowds in the early rounds of ATP and WTA Tour events, but this was fabulous: full houses for sin­gles and dou­bles.

Coco al­most sin­gle-hand­edly sold out the sta­dium. She played dou­bles with Caty Mcnally, another big-hit­ting Amer­i­can who loves to serve and vol­ley, and I am sure a lot of young women were in­spired. Not only does Gauff play great ten­nis, but she in­ter­views bril­liantly.

Who­ever brought up the likes of Barty, An­dreescu and Gauff gave them the full reper­toire of shots and an abil­ity to prob­lem­solve tech­ni­cally and tac­ti­cally. They also en­sured that they fell in love with the game.

I hope some of the Chi­nese play­ers of to­mor­row will have the same va­ri­ety and cre­ativ­ity. If they do, I will qui­etly cel­e­brate the role of bal­loons, bean-bags and water bombs, as well as the over­ar­ch­ing value of learn­ing through play.

It would not sur­prise me one bit if China be­came a ten­nis su­per­power in the next decade or so

Strong re­turn: Ash­leigh Barty dur­ing her vic­tory over Belinda Ben­cic

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