Chinese close on big pay-off after huge investment

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The Independent Online

As the 2008 Beijing Olympics draw closer, China is striving to optimise its sporting performances, and the Wimbledon draw reflects that initiative. Three Chinese pairs contest the women's doubles, including the winners of the last Olympics, Li Ting and Sun Tiantian, and the couple who have surpassed them in the world standings following their victory earlier this year at the Australian Open, Yan Zi and Zhang Jiu, who are seeded fourth.

The women's singles, meanwhile, feature six Chinese players, of whom Na Li, whose first round opponent is Virginie Razzana of France, is seeded 27th.

So, are the Chinese coming? Well, if you take their word for it, not for a while yet...

Sun Jinfang, appointed as director of the Chinese Tennis Federation in 2002, saw the country invest $1,200,000 (£659,000) in the sport over the following two years. From 2001 to 2004, the number of international tournaments taking place within China rose from 10 to 19, with prize-money rising from $1,200 to $70,000. To the satisfaction of both the Federation and the Chinese people, this period concluded with an Olympic victory for the women's doubles pairing of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian.

In the wake of her Olympic victory, however, Li Ting was a model of caution. "Winning the No 1 position in this tournament does not mean we are No 1 in the world," she said. "We are realistic about the actual position of China's tennis. Our win today does not mean China has become a major force in tennis."

Two years later, after Li and Sun had made the quarter-finals of the French Open and Yan Zi and Zhang Jiu had earned their win in the Australian Open, Jinfang was similarly circumspect about her country's prospects.

"Though Chinese teams have made a breakthrough in this season's Australian Open and French Open, we are still far from the elite level of the world," she said.

Bridging that gap is clearly something that has occupied Chinese officials. During this year's French Open, they were reported to have been in conversation with officials of the International Tennis Federation discussing how Chinese players might have more chances to play in top-ranking competitions, with particular interest in providing wild cards for their players in the Beijing Olympics.

More dynamic agencies are at work on the Chinese project, however. Nick Bollettieri, whose IMG Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, has sent a generation of champions on their way to Grand Slam success, has already got a number of young Chinese players on its book, including the two leading under-12 girls.

"We have offered them both scholarships, and I believe they are both going to be outstanding players," Bollettieri said yesterday. "Chinese players are a lot bigger than Japanese players, and they also seem to be more aggressive. They are very good, and their movement on the court is excellent. The other thing the Chinese players seem to have is an ability to focus completely on their game."

But Bollettieri does not see any individual Chinese player likely to make a big impact in time for their home Olympics. "I don't see any Chinese player around at the moment who is capable of winning the Olympics," he said.

The American master coach has been in talks with Chinese officials on the subject of revamping their national coaching set-up, and those discussions will continue during the US Open in August. "I am interested in trying to develop their resources, and to help their coaches," he said.

It may take a while to arrive. But the Chinese wave is on its way.