Typhoon Fitow did its ugly best, but there could be no dampening the excitement here at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre on Monday. As heavy rain battered the city, forcing the cancellation of all matches on the outside courts at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, the retractable roof over the main 15,000-capacity stadium enabled a large crowd to relish a significant moment in tennis history in this part of the world.
While the men’s game in China has a long way to go before it can match the feats of its women players, Zhang Ze proved that the country’s best need not feel out of place when trading shots with the elite. In a pioneering move, Zhang partnered Roger Federer in the doubles and more than played his part as the Sino-Swiss partnership beat Kevin Anderson and Dmitry Tursunov 6-2, 6-1.
“Zhang Ze played really well,” said Federer. “It was the first time we played together. You just focus on playing well yourself, first of all. I think that’s one of the reasons we did so well. We weren’t worried about the partner having to save you. I think that’s what he did exceptionally well today.”
Federer, who responded enthusiastically to the idea of playing with Zhang despite having played only one other doubles match this year, has been a passionate ambassador for Asian tennis since he opened the stadium here in 2004. Zhang, who is nicknamed “Big George” and communicated with Federer in English, said: “I learnt a lot from him, not just the playing skills, but also the professionalism. In today’s match, in the beginning I lost a few points. He told me: ‘Never mind, it doesn’t matter.’ He always encouraged me. Then you can see that I can handle the match more easily.”
Five years ago there were no Chinese men ranked in the world’s top 500. If the current rankings of 23-year-old Zhang (world No 271) and 22-year-old Wu Di (world No 244) represent modest progress, there are other signs that the sport is gaining a foothold here.
China has become the fulcrum of the Asia swing, which has become an established part of the men’s and women’s tours. The country stages eight Challenger tournaments, which are the events beneath the main men’s circuit, and a workshop here this week will encourage more. The sport has recently been introduced into schools and tennis courts are now a regular feature of most new housing projects.
Michael Luevano, the Shanghai tournament director, has worked in Chinese tennis for 16 years and is convinced that the country will one day produce a regular flow of players at the highest level. He believes that within 10 years there will be a Chinese male player in the world’s top 20.
“The Chinese are extremely determined,” Luevano said. “Even seeing the men players now, they can hit and play at the level. They need confidence and a catalyst to really make that leap. There is no silver bullet answer. They’ve mastered every other racket sport. I think it’s just a matter of time.”
Nevertheless, there are still major hurdles to overcome. Needing visas to travel to most countries makes it hard for Chinese players to get enough international competition, while travel costs can be prohibitive. Chinese players are also required to devote periods of the year to national competitions when they could be developing their own game.
The lack of a tennis tradition – the sport was largely ignored here until it returned to the Olympics in 1988 – means that many of the current generation of players were not exposed from an early age to the intensive training and coaching that have helped to develop so many future champions in other countries. Progress in the men’s game can be traced back to the establishment of a men’s tournament here in 1996. The staging in Shanghai of the 2002 Tennis Masters Cup (subsequently renamed the World Tour Finals and now held at the O2 Arena in London) was a major breakthrough and was followed by an even bigger coup when the city became the event’s home between 2005 and 2008. The impressive Qi Zhong Tennis Centre was completed in 2005 and is now the permanent site of the Shanghai Masters.
Men’s tennis, nevertheless, is having to play catch-up with the women’s game, where a comparative lack of strength in depth has made progress significantly easier. In 2004 Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won China’s first Olympic tennis gold medal in the doubles in Athens and two years later Zheng Jie and Yan Zi claimed China’s first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open. In 2011 Li Na won the French Open to become the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title.
Li has quickly become one of China’s biggest celebrities. She has more than 21 million followers on the Chinese microblogging website Weibo, while a record 116 million Chinese viewers watched her French Open triumph. This year’s list of the world’s highest-earning sportswomen compiled by Forbes magazine put Li third, behind Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, with an annual income estimated at $18.2m (about £11.3m). Li’s agent is Max Eisenbud, who played a big part in making Sharapova the world’s highest-paid sportswoman. He has capitalised on the huge interest in Li in China by signing lucrative endorsement deals with blue-chip companies such as Nike and Mercedes.
The Women’s Tennis Association, meanwhile, has an office in Beijing, while the number of WTA tournaments in China will rise to eight next year. Five years ago there were two.
Although China’s men have made less of an impact, Zhang, who beat Richard Gasquet in the first round here last year, is optimistic about the future. “I think over the past two years, tennis in China began to improve slowly,” he said. “Players like me and Wu Di have improved in the rankings from 300, 400, to within 200. I think that over the past several years there really are a lot of breakthroughs in China.”
Booming in China: Sports on the up
World No 4 Ding Junhui has helped the sport’s ascendancy in China. In the first-ever world ranking final between two Chinese players at the Shanghai Masters last month, Ding defeated Xiao Guodong by 10 frames to six.
The China Super League is the best division, won at the weekend by Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande. In attempt to improve the league the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have featured.
An estimated 300 million people in China now play the sport. The men’s team are 12th in FIBA rankings, the women are eighth. Yao Ming, who was named in the All-NBA team five times, is one of their biggest names.