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Feature: Five years after Li Na's retirement, Chinese tennis rallies forward

2019-09-20 13:48:00 Xinhuanet

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (Xinhua) -- It can't be easy for China's young women tennis players living in the huge shadow cast by the legendary Li Na, but five years after Li's retirement, her successors are starting to get results to match their potential and are increasingly proving ready to follow in the footsteps of the Chinese tennis icon.

In the just-concluded US Open, Chinese number one Wang Qiang has proven herself a force to be reckoned with, reaching the last eight in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her career. And now Wang's world ranking has jumped to the 12th, a career best.

"I think I'm getting close to the world's elite players. The biggest thing that changed was confidence. I think now I believe in myself. I know I can do it," said the 27-year-old during the US Open.

Wang's run to the quarterfinals at the US Open continues what has been a 12-month stretch of breakthroughs for her. Last season she won her first WTA title in the Nanchang Open, retained her Asian Games gold medal in Indonesia before winning her second title in the Guangzhou Open.

She's also been able to notch up more wins against current or former Top 10 players, including the likes of Ashleigh Barty of Australia, Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic and Venus Williams of the United States.

Being touted as a successor to Li, Asia's first Grand Slam winner and a trailblazer for tennis in China, Wang said she wants to become a Grand Slam champion, but she bears no burden in terms of following Li.

"Li is our role model and we all want to be like her. The Chinese tennis has changed a lot since she won the French Open. We all think that if she can do it, maybe we can do it," Wang said.

"My goal is winning a Grand Slam, but I don't feel any pressure. I just want to do my best and focus on being myself. I don't want to have regrets in my career," she added.

Li became the first Asian to win a Grand Slam title when she triumphed in the French Open in 2011. She then added a second major title at the Australian Open in 2014 before retiring on September 19 that year due to a chronic knee injury.

With more international tournaments being staged in the country and strong government support and investment, tennis has entered the athletic mainstream in China, but the country has not found anyone to assume Li's throne.

In the past, Wang's accomplishments might have seemed like little more than a fluke, but this time might be different as her compatriots also made their marks with convincing performances this season.

Former Chinese number one Zhang Shuai also made last eight at Wimbledon this summer. Three years ago, the 30-year-old reached the quarterfinals of a major for the first time at the Australian Open.

With Wang Qiang and Zhang seeking breakthroughs at major events, Zheng Saisai and Wang Yafan, both 25 years old, are on the rise too.

Zheng captured her first WTA title at the San Jose Open in August after beating several higher seeded players, and now she has reached a career-high ranking of No. 37, while Wang Yafan won her first WTA title in the Mexico Open in March.

The future also looks bright in the post-Li Na era as the 18-year-old Wang Xiyu and 17-year-old Wang Xinyu are both working toward a Top 100 finish this season.

"I think that Chinese tennis has already come into the spotlight on the world stage. We have many Top 100, Top 50 players who can compete at a higher level. It also inspired more kids to take up the sport in China," Wang Qiang said.

Her sentiments were echoed by Zheng, who promised there will be more to come from the Chinese women players.

"It's been a wonderful year for the Chinese players. I think we are at one of the best periods since Li's retirement. We are catching up very fast and can reach the finals of the high-level tournaments. I think we've become more confident and we are not afraid of the top-ranked players," Zheng said.

"We have not come close to matching the success of Li for years, but overall we are on the rise this year. We do not have to focus on ranking or victories, just focus on the game and have more confidence. Our time will come," Zheng added.

Five years after retiring from tennis, Li can still grab headlines in China, being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July, not only for her skills on the court but for her contribution to the growth of the sport in China. Li is also a fixture at her hometown tournament, the Wuhan Open, which she has worked tirelessly to promote.

"I always try my best in tennis on the court. If you try everything, I think one day for sure there will be payback," said Li, now a mother of two children.

Asked about Li, the 17-year-old Wang Xinyu minced no words in praise of the double Grand Slam champion.

"Li for me is a goal. She's really a great player, she's a legend, and she spurred a generation of young tennis players in China. I think we have a good future, and I really feel honored to follow in her footsteps," she said.

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