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Chinese tennis star emerges at a precarious time

PARIS — To make things easier for his Western friends who struggle with Mandarin, rising Chinese tennis star Zheng Qinwen often goes by the nickname Ana.

But if you watch teenager Zheng hit a forehand, a serve or just about any shot on the tennis court, her first nickname in English seems more appropriate.

“In the real beginning at IMG, they called me Fire,” she said in an interview at Roland-Garros on Friday, referring to her management company, IMG.

There is indeed a lot of power and passion in Zheng’s game, as she demonstrated in her second-round upset against Simona Halep. Ranked No. 74 and a climber, Zheng, a 19-year-old French Open rookie with a lively personality, is one of the most promising young players in the world as she prepares to face France’s Alizé Cornet on Saturday on the Principal Philippe Chatrier Search.

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 turned to the game after the success of Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and longtime one of the female athletes the best paid. “Li Na makes me think big,” said Zheng, who was just 8 when Li won the French Open in 2011.

Li, who retired in September 2014 at the age of 32, was one of the catalysts for the WTA Tour’s decision to increase its presence in China, filling its end-of-season schedule with tournaments in the country, including the WTA finals, the circuit’s end-of-year championships. , which moved to Shenzhen, China in 2019 for 10 years and offered a record-breaking $14 million prize, including a winner’s check for over $4 million.

But despite the long-term deal, there has yet to be another WTA Finals in China and no touring events of any kind since global sporting events were halted in early 2020 around the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Although touring resumed in other parts of the world later that year, China closed its borders to most international visitors and international sporting events.

In December, the WTA Tour suspended all tournaments in China due to allegations made by Peng Shuai, a top Chinese player. In an online post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice premier, of sexual assault. The post was quickly deleted and the online conversation about Peng in China was censored.

The WTA has asked for guarantees of its safety, a direct line of communication with it and, very unlikely in light of the Chinese context, a full and transparent investigation into the allegations. Peng has since reappeared in public in China and suggested that her online post was misinterpreted and that she did not make sexual assault allegations. She also announced her retirement at 36. But although the issue has largely faded from the headlines, the WTA Tour has not lifted the suspension or backed down from its demands for an investigation. He is still unable to communicate directly with her and fears that she has been forced to recant.

The WTA has already announced that it will not return to China this season, and it is possible even without the WTA’s suspension that the Chinese government would not have allowed tournaments to be held in 2022 given that many major cities, including Shanghai, have been locked down in recent weeks due to new restrictions amid a rise in coronavirus cases.

For now – and perhaps for a bit longer – Zheng and his compatriots don’t have a Chinese showcase for their talents, even though the men’s circuit has not suspended its events in China.

“Of course, I would like to be able to play at home,” Zheng said. “I know it’s China’s 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 players have to stay abroad even longer than usual.

“I’m sad because if they organize a lot of tournaments in China, I have a chance to come back,” she said.

Zheng, now based in Barcelona, ​​Spain, and coached by former men’s top 100 player Pere Riba, has spent much of her short life away from home. Originally from the city of Shiyan in central China, 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 was tennis,” said Zheng, who also spent two years playing table tennis before. to ignore it. “I felt like there was more space to compete. Tennis is a game of choice. It’s not about who’s the strongest or who’s the most powerful or who’s the fastest. Every decision you make on the pitch can change the game.

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 years old. She said she spent four years there.

“It was a tough time for me because I wasn’t with my parents at the time,” she said. “They came to visit me about once a week or two weeks once.”

She said it was her father’s decision that she joined the tennis program in Wuhan at such a young age. “He saw that I was good at tennis and he wanted to see if I could do anything,” she said.

Talent scouts quickly accepted. IMG signed him to a contract when he was 11, shortly after his father convinced his mother to make the long trip to the United States with Zheng in November 2013 to compete in the Nick Bollettieri Discovery Open, an event in the IMG Academy in Bradenton. , Florida, which was open to young players without an invitation.

“My mother didn’t want to go,” Zheng said. “But my dad said she was the best in China at her age, so now you have to see where she fits in the world.”

His first impression?

“The first thought I had in my head was, ‘Wow, the sky is so blue,'” she said. “Because China, you know, had a 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 games and they were like, ‘You have to come. There is this Chinese girl who is amazing.

Upon her return to China, she eventually moved to Beijing to train at an academy run by Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentinian-Belgian coach who worked with Li late in his career and spent more than a decade at coach Justine Henin, a former No. 1 player.

Zheng said she spent 90 minutes a day working with Rodriguez for several years on technique, tactics and his mentality. “I think Carlos laid the foundation for who I am right now,” Zheng said.

What she is now, with her power play modeled initially on Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, is a threat to the establishment. That includes Cornet, a 32-year-old French star in possibly his final season who will be sure to have crowd support on Saturday as Zheng makes his center court debut.

“I’m ready for this,” Zheng said calmly. “I like to play on the big stages.”

Until further notice, however, the big scenes in women’s tennis are all taking place outside of China.

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