A Chinese Tennis Star Emerges at a Precarious Time

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

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

“At the real beginning of 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 he demonstrated in his 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 he prepares to face Alizé Cornet of France on Saturday at 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 success of the game after Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and one of the highest-earning female athletes of the long. “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 is yet 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. Although the tour resumed in other parts of the world later that year, China kept its borders closed to most international visitors and international sporting 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 taken down quickly and online conversation about Peng in China was censored.

The WTA requested guarantees of its safety, a direct line of communication with it and, most improbably, in the light of the Chinese context, a full and transparent investigation into the allegations. Peng has since reappeared in China in public and suggested that his online post had been misinterpreted and that he had not made sexual assault allegations. She also announced her retirement at age 36. But although 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 she is coerced into a retraction.

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

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

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

The three-year absence of tour-level events in China also means that Zheng and other Chinese women players must be abroad even more 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 his 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 the 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 wasn’t with my parents at that moment,” she said. “They came to visit me once a week or two weeks at a time.”

She said it was her father’s decision 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 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 a street.

“My mother didn’t want to go,” Zheng said. “But my father said he is now the best in China at his age so now you have to see where he 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 agents at IMG. “And the coaches were watching all the matches, and they were like, ‘You have to come. There is 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 spent more than a decade coaching Justin 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 primarily after Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, is a threat to the establishment. That includes Cornet, a 32-year-old French star who will likely 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, that women’s tennis is all out of China.

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