Young guns need more drills to fill Li Na's shoes

Updated: 2015-10-05 08:34

By Sun Xiaochen(China Daily)

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China eagerly awaits its next star ... but it could take some time

The void left in the tennis world after Li Na officially announced her retirement during last year's China Open is still being felt.

"I think we all started to kind of miss her, and me especially," said world No 4 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic ahead of the start of her China Open campaign in Beijing on Saturday.

 Young guns need more drills to fill Li Na's shoes

One of China's crop of rising stars, Zheng Saisai, in action at the Wuhan Open last week. Fred Dufour / Agence France-Presse

"She was one of the funniest and nicest persons on the Tour, and she is a good friend of mine. It's kind of boring (without her) but what can you do? She is happy and she has a baby," she said of Asia's only two-time Grand Slam champion.

Li's departure has also placed hefty expectations on China's next generation of players.

With 2014 US Open semifinalist Peng Shuai not playing at the Open due to injury and fellow veteran Zheng Jie set to retire as well, this year's China Open, a Premier Mandatory event on the Women's Tennis Association Tour, saw no local players make the 64-seed main draw through rankings for the first time in a decade.

Although four youngsters, including the highest ranked Chinese player, Zheng Saisai, accepted wild-card entries into the main draw, they are not expected to go deep in the event.

"We know it's important to deliver good results in big events to keep it (the game's momentum in China) going and we are pushing hard to do it. It's good to have those expectations ... as motivation but don't expect too much in too much of a hurry. It takes time in tennis for it to happen," Zheng, who is the world No 65, said at a fan appreciation event during the Open.

Through Li's groundbreaking, title-winning performances in 2011 (French Open) and 2014 (Australian Open), the popularity of tennis in China has surged and an increasing number of international events have landed in the country.

A record seven International-plus level WTA tournaments will be held on the Chinese mainland from next year while only two were played in 2012.

More events at their doorsteps have offered Chinese youngsters greater access to the elite level of the game; opportunities seniors like Li and Zheng wished they had coming up through the ranks.

Still, Li urged the public to be patient with this crop of new Chinese players.

"A new tournament needs a couple of years to mature and so do young players. They need enough space and time to grow, so just stay patient as the post-1990s generation has more opportunities (than we had before)," Li, who gave birth to her daughter, Alisa, in June, said during the Wuhan Open last week.

Polish star Agnieszka Radwanska agreed, stressing the key to adapting to the pro level was to play as many matches as possible.

"It's really a huge difference from the International Tennis Federation (for juniors) to the WTA. I think experience is the most important part. You can only learn from matches how it is on the big stage. On the ITF circuit you don't have much (tests) playing in big-time situations," said the 2011 China Open champion.

Guided by Chinese-American coach Alan Ma, Zheng, 21, focuses more on the WTA Tour than the less-challenging ITF circuits and remains upbeat despite all the adversity she has faced during this transitional period.

"To stay positive, you really have to properly position yourself - especially when stepping up to a high level. Don't expect too much and just keep focused on every match, every tournament," she said.

Wang Yafan, one of the six Chinese youngsters eliminated during qualification in Beijing, said more exposure in the pro ranks would help her relax when facing higher-ranked opponents at big events.

"I think we need to go out more and play more overseas to really see how our young peers from the rest of the world approach the game and learn from them," said the 21-year-old world No 151.

(China Daily 10/05/2015 page12)