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China's bright stars waiting in the wings

Peng Shuai prepares to serve
by Lewis Hannam
Friday 4 July 2014

Li Na may be the most famous, but she's far from being the only player China can pin its hopes on.

Her exit from this year’s Championships was greeted with speculation in China about when the 32-year-old may retire from tennis.

The reigning Australian Open champion insists such speculation is premature, but the prospect raises the question of who is waiting in the wings to emulate China’s first global tennis star.

One such candidate is Shilin Xu, who lost her girls’ singles quarter-final on Friday to Romanian Elena Gabriela Ruse.

The No.10 seed moved to Florida from her native Guangzhou in southern China aged just nine in pursuit of her tennis dreams, backed by supportive parents.

“I’m an aggressive player. On the women’s side my favourite player is Serena Williams. People are scared of her on the court, that’s good," says Xu, “I don’t want to be known as the next Li Na, but if I can achieve success like her it will be great. I will work hard to try and make that happen.”

This year is the 16-year-olds’ second visit to The Championships, having made her debut last year.

“Playing in the juniors event at Wimbledon is a great experience. I just hope that I can play to the best of my ability while I am here.”

After six years in the United States, Xu is now based back in her native China, and has this summer’s Youth Olympic Games to look forward to on home soil in Nanjing.

“Moving to the States did help with my tennis development, but every place has its benefits and its negative elements. Training in China and the US are both good experiences.”

While the men’s game in China still struggles to produce top-level players, the women’s game remains relatively buoyant.

Li Na aside, both Peng Shuai, 28 (pictured), and Jie Zheng, 30, once again took to the court in this year’s women’s singles at Wimbledon. Peng Shuai performed best of the trio, losing to finalist Petra Kvitova in the fourth round. 

Peng Shuai is also an accomplished doubles player, and with her Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-Wei won last year's championships at Wimbledon, and the French Open this year.

Qiu Yu Ye, 17, playing in Friday's girls’ doubles quarter-final today, says the game in China has benefited from Li Na’s and her compatriots’ successes:

“Tennis in China has grown due to Li Na. Now all Chinese know about the sport," she says. “She is a role model for the Chinese players too, in terms of her mentality and her tactics.

“More people are playing tennis now and that will be good for the overall game in China.”

The success of a sport in China often relies not only on government backing, but also Chinese parents’ willingness to let their children play it.

If a sport is not viewed as a viable career, many parents will not be willing to let their children spend time on it. Li Na’s two Grand Slam wins have helped change perceptions.

Says Ye: “Now more Chinese parents are letting their kids play tennis, and Li Na is the reason for that”.

Ye, from Nanjing, first started playing tennis at the age of seven, after encouragement from her father. Playing at Wimbledon has given her added motivatiation to try to make it to the top:

“The courts here are beautiful and it is amazing to play on them. I hope that one day I can play on Centre Court and win a trophy.” 

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