World

A Chinese Tennis Star Emerges at a Precarious Time

PARIS — To keep things simpler for her Mandarin-challenged Western friends, the rising Chinese tennis star Zheng Qinwen often goes by the nickname Ana.

But if you watch the teenage Zheng hit a forehand, a serve or just about any shot on a tennis court, her first English-language nickname seems more appropriate.

“At the real beginning at IMG, they called me Fire,” she said in an interview at the French Open on Friday, referring to her management company, IMG.

There is indeed plenty of power and passion in Zheng’s game, as she demonstrated in her second-round upset of Simona Halep. Ranked No. 74 and climbing, Zheng, a 19-year-old French Open rookie with a lively personality, is one of the most promising young players in the world as she prepares to face Alizé Cornet of France on Saturday on the main Philippe Chatrier Court.

But Zheng’s run comes at a particularly uncertain time for an emerging Chinese tennis star. She is one of the leaders of the so-called Li Na generation: the group of young Chinese players who gravitated to the game after the success of Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and long one of the highest-earning female athletes. “Li Na makes me think big,” said Zheng, just 8 years old when Li won the French Open in 2011.

Li, who retired in September 2014 at age 32, was one of the catalysts for the WTA Tour’s decision to increase its presence in China, packing its late-season calendar with tournaments in the country including the WTA Finals, the tour’s year-end championships, which moved to Shenzhen, China, in 2019 for 10 years and offered a record $14 million in prize money, including a winner’s check of over $4 million.

But despite the long-term deal, there has yet to be another WTA Finals in China and no tour event of any kind since global sporting events were disrupted in early 2020 near the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Though the tour resumed in other parts of the world later that year, China kept its borders shut to most international visitors and international sports events.

In December, the WTA Tour suspended all tournaments in China because of allegations made by Peng Shuai, a prominent Chinese player. In an online post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault. The post was quickly taken down and online conversation about Peng in China was censored.

The WTA requested guarantees of her safety, a direct line of communication with her and, most improbably in light of the Chinese context, a full and transparent investigation into the allegations. Peng has since reappeared in public in China and suggested that her online post had been misinterpreted and that she had not made sexual assault allegations. She also has announced her retirement at age 36. But though the issue has largely faded from the headlines, the WTA Tour has not lifted the suspension or backed away from its demands for an investigation. It is still unable to communicate with her directly and concerned that she has been coerced into a retraction.

The WTA already has announced that it will not return to China this season, and it is possible even without the WTA suspension that the Chinese government would not have allowed tournaments to go ahead in 2022 considering that numerous major cities, including Shanghai, have been locked down in recent weeks because of new restrictions amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

For now — and perhaps quite a bit longer — Zheng and her compatriots are without a Chinese showcase for their talents even though the men’s tour has not suspended its events in China.

“Of course, I wish I can play at home,” Zheng said. “I know it is China decision, and I cannot do anything. Let’s see.”

The three-year absence of tour-level events in China also means that Zheng and the other Chinese women’s players must remain abroad even more than usual.

“I’m sad because if they make a lot of tournaments in China then I have a chance to come back,” she said.

Zheng, now based in Barcelona, Spain, and coached by Pere Riba, a former top-100 men’s player, has spent much of her short life away from home. Originally from the central Chinese city of Shiyan, Zheng was encouraged by her parents to choose a sport.

“My parents asked me to choose between basketball, badminton and tennis, and I found out my favorite sport is tennis,” said Zheng, who also spent two years playing table tennis before losing interest. “I felt like there was more space to compete. Tennis is a game of choice. It’s not who’s stronger or who’s more powerful or who’s faster. Every decision you make on court can change the match.”

She was an only child but said she moved to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and about 250 miles from Shiyan, when she was just 8. She said she spent four years there.

“That was a difficult time for me because I was not with my parents at that moment,” she said. “They came to visit me like once a week or two weeks one time.”

She said it was her father’s decision for her to join the tennis program in Wuhan so young. “He saw that I was good at tennis, and he wanted to see if I could do something,” she said.

The talent scouts soon agreed. IMG signed her to a contract at age 11, not long after her father convinced her mother to make the long journey to the United States with Zheng in November 2013 to take part in the Nick Bollettieri Discovery Open, an event at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., that was open to young players without an invitation.

“My mother didn’t want to go,” Zheng said. “But my father said now she is the best in China at her age so now you have to see where she is in the world.”

Her first impression?

“The first thought I had in the head was, ‘Wow, the sky is so blue,’” she said. “Because China, you know, had a little bit of pollution at that time.”

Once on the court, she brought the thunder.

“I happened to be there,” said Marijn Bal, who became one of Zheng’s agent at IMG. “And the coaches were watching all the matches, and they were like, ‘You have to come. There’s this Chinese girl who is amazing.’”

Upon returning to China, she eventually relocated to Beijing to train at an academy run by Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine-Belgian coach who worked with Li at the end of her career and had spent more than a decade coaching Justine Henin, a former No. 1 player.

Zheng said she spent 90 minutes a day working with Rodriguez for several years on technique, tactics and her mentality. “I think Carlos made the base for what I am right now,” Zheng said.

What she is now, with her power game modeled initially after Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, is a threat to the establishment. That includes Cornet, a 32-year-old French star in perhaps her final season who will have no shortage of crowd support on Saturday as Zheng makes her debut on center court.

“I’m ready for that,” Zheng said calmly. “I like to play on the big stages.”

Until further notice, however, the big stages in women’s tennis are all outside of China.

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