Tennis: Few Asians reach the top — NY Times, IHT

Tennis: Few Asians reach the top ranks

Christopher Johnson, Tuesday, February 6, 2007

TOKYO–  From the synthetic surfaces of Japan to the newly paved courts of Thailand and China, Asia has the most tennis players yet the worst results.

Almost four decades after Yonex began making racquets in Tokyo, Asia currently has no men and only three women in the top 40. It’s not for a lack of trying. Maybe they’re trying too hard, said Martina Hingis, who taught clinics in Japan during her three-year hiatus before coming back to the game’s upper reaches, currently ranked No. 6. “They’re good at drilling,” Hingis said over the weekend before winning her fifth Pan Pacific Open here. “But they have to remember that it’s still a game. You can’t build machines out of the players. It’s important to be human. I think the coaches here should just let them play. There’s a lot of potential among the younger players.”

Investors also see potential. Shanghai outbid 20 cities to host the Master’s Cup in Qi Zhong Stadium, which cost $200 million to build and seats 15,000. Even smaller cities like Madras, India, Pattaya, Thailand, and Guangzhou, China, host events. 

Before winning the Japan Open last fall, Roger Federer said that upscaling events would help to develop talent. “There’s a huge potential here in Asia,” he said. “You get to see more tennis if the tournament is in your time zone. The Shanghai Masters has the potential to be something bigger.”

Tim Henman of England agreed. “They’re like us,” he said. “They’re big tennis fans. They have massive interest but they need to get more players coming to the top.”

Last week, about 8,000 fans per day cheered on Ai Sugiyama and other homegrown hopefuls. “This tournament is very important for young players in Asia,” Sugiyama said at the opening gala. “It’s a steppingstone.”

But Asians did not step up. Departing early were Sugiyama, ranked 24th; Na Li of China, ranked 17th; Jie Zheng of China, ranked 30th; and Aiko Nakamura of Japan, ranked 56th.

Hopes were high in 1992 when Kimiko Date won the Japan Open and later reached the semifinals of two Grand Slam events before retiring at age 26. Sugiyama has flirted with fame but never won a singles major. The same is true of Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand, Sania Mirza of India and others.

Many blame the lack of progress on language barriers, archaic training, uncritical media, societies that value groups over individuals, officials who lack funding or playing experience, and physical inferiority.

“We are not so powerful or tall,” said Sugiyama, who stands 1.63 meters tall, or 5-foot-4. “Asian players have to find a weapon against bigger players, such as fitness or movement. For me, footwork was a key to my success.” Sugiyama said the burden of travel fell heavily on Asians. “For us, it’s quite far away to get to Europe and the States,” she said. “Americans or Europeans can pick two tournaments and then go home for a week. We have to stay at least a month or two.”

Federer discounted that theory. “There’s only two tournaments in Switzerland and I’m No. 1 in the world,” he said. “We’re not a soccer club that has a home-field advantage half the time. We’ve got to learn how to win on the road.”

Paradorn, now ranked No. 52, having been as high as No. 9 in 2003, agreed with Federer. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, you have to
deal with it if you want to be one of them,” he said, recommending finding strength in Buddhist practices like the Vipassana meditation method he studied in a Thai temple. “If you’re tired, you can control your breathing,” Paradorn said. “That’s what gives Federer power. He controls the match by showing his calm. It drives the opponents crazy because you can’t do anything to make him lose control. “Your mentality is always the key. I believe I was born to do this, and my family has supported me all the way.”

Others, like Hiro Yoshimatsu, a reporter for Nikkan Sports News, cite societal differences. In Japan, parents who don’t foresee a lucrative career in tennis tend to steer their talented teens toward other sports or studying for college entrance exams. “Sports is not everything for us,” Yoshimatsu said. “Basically, we don’t like competitive battle. We hate risk. It’s Japanese custom. In Japan, if you try hard, and you miss, it’s O.K., because at least you learned many things. This mentality might be good for politics and economics, but not for sport.”

Many hope that the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will be a turning point. With four women in the top 80, China hopes to channel its prowess in table tennis and badminton into tennis. China’s state tennis authority, known for mandatory six-hour team training sessions and taxing one-third of players’ earnings, allowed Shuai Peng, now ranked 42nd, to attend Chris Evert’s academy in Florida. Jie Zheng and Yan Li won China’s first ever Grand Slam doubles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open last year.

Michael Chang, a Chinese-American who won the French Open at age 17, in 1989, recently said he would like to coach in China. Hingis said she would like to coach in Japan after she retires. “What I really like about the players here is that the girls are very hard working,” Hingis said. 

Sugiyama said Asian tennis needed a hero like Yao Ming, Ichiro Suzuki or Tiger Woods to spark the sport. “If someone becomes famous, then more kids will want to play and succeed,” Sugiyama said. “Most Japanese kids who like sports go into baseball or soccer. Tennis is third or fourth.”

Many Japanese sought Federer’s advice during the Japan Open. “For me it’s always been a love of the game. I love other sports, too: skiing, basketball, soccer, squash,” Federer said. “It’s good if you try many sports and choose the one you like. Then it helps if you have supportive parents and good coaching. And you need the support of the federation.”

His agent, Tony Godsick of IMG, said Federer’s secret weapon was training eight weeks a year in Dubai, where the broiling temperatures make the heat of Grand Slam events in Australia and New York “feel like air-conditioning.” With no lack of heat, Asia has at least one thing in its favor.