Tennis: Victory in defeat at Australian Open

By Yu Yilei (
Updated: 2010-01-28 21:37
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Tennis: Victory in defeat at Australian Open
Chinese tennis player Zheng Jie hits a shot during her women's singles semi-final match against Belgian opponent Justine Henin at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne January 28, 2010. [Agencies] 

"Mei Mei Ni Da Dan De Wang Qian Zou (Sisters, go forward bravely.)"

Lyrics from Zhang Yimou's epic film "Red Sorghum"

No Chinese player will lift the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at Rod Laver Arena tomorrow night but the nation’s top women players walk away from the year's first Grand Slam winners.

Li Na lost to 11-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams in two tiebreaks in the first semifinal Thursday, succumbing to the power, speed and toughness of her foe. Compatriot Zheng Jie was simply outplayed by Belgium's other comeback queen, Justine Henin, a seven-time Grand Slam winner, in straight sets in the other semi.

However, despite their amazing runs Down Under coming to an end, the day two Chinese players reached the last four of a Grand Slam tournament will be remembered forever. Only a few nations, such as the US, Russia, Belgium and Serbia have performed similar feats in recent times.

Apart from hundreds of Chinese at the site, millions of people here watched the matches live on TV, praying their national heroines could produce more miracles.

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I am sure they won't be too disappointed because witnessing Li and Zheng marching on to the Open's center court alongside greats like Williams and Henin while basking in the applause of a packed stadium was already a mesmerizing and proud moment.

Here, I would take this opportunity to salute Madam Sun Jinfang, China's tennis chief. Sun, a member of the Chinese women's volleyball team which won five world and Olympic titles in the late 1980s, enacted a groundbreaking reform by allowing four top players, Li, Zheng, Peng Shuai, currently the world No 46, and Yan Zi, Zheng's Grand Slam doubles titles winning partner, to leave the state-supported training system and manage their own careers at the end of 2008.

Tennis: Victory in defeat at Australian Open
A supporter of China's Li Na watches her semi-final match against Serena Williams of the US at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne January 28, 2010.[Agencies]

They can hire their own coaches, choose their own schedules - and only need to hand over 8 to 12 percent of their winnings to the authorities. Previously, such contributions could reach up to 65 percent.

It is that move which has brought new life to those careers and now Chinese tennis in general.

Since the move, Li and Zheng have rewritten China's tennis history. They both reached No 15 in the world, the peak for a Chinese player, and created more history in Melbourne by filling out half of the women's semifinal roster.

Talking on the phone last night, Sun, who did not travel to the Australia but watched the games on TV, told me she was extremely proud the move, which she called "professionalization", has proven to be a success.

"It is a very good start and paves a new way for the development of China’s tennis," she said.

"But you can't imagine the pressure and risks we have faced since enacting that move."

As expected, Sun remains cautious about allowing more young Chinese players to follow in the footsteps of the quartet, saying the old system still provides security for young players "who are not strong enough to survive on the highly-competitive WTA tour".

I don't agree with that point. I think promising young players should be released as early as possible so they can grow up through experiencing the ups and downs of the tour. (When Li and Zheng left the system, they were aged 26 and 25 respectively).

Like raising children, you cannot keep them under your wings forever. The best way to grow up is to give them their wings and let them fly.

Mei Mei Ni Da Dan De Wang Qian Zou.