Li Na’s triumph over Francesca Schiavone on a hot Sunday afternoon in Paris in 2011 was watched by about 120 million people in China. The 6-4 7-6 victory over the Italian catapulted the already popular Li into superstar status in her homeland. And little wonder, given the historic nature of the win – Li is the first Chinese and first Asian tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title.
It sparked a tennis boom in China, with youngsters all across the country picking up a racquet to emulate their new hero, or just find out what the game of tennis is all about.
Traditionally, Chinese schools have been known for their strong focus on academic achievement, while talented young athletes are fast tracked into elite sports schools. But an ANZ-supported Junior Tennis program is giving regular school children in China the chance to supplement their education through exercise, while also learning new skills.
The first of its kind in China, the ANZ junior tennis program supports tennis at a grass roots level as part of ANZ’s Shanghai Rolex Masters sponsorship. About 750 children from four public schools in the Shanghai area take regular tennis lessons three times a week from April to November. Under the expert guidance and watchful eye of three coaches , kids aged between six and 12 work on their forehands, backhands, serves and volleys on a specially designed mini court. Racquets are specially designed for youngsters to handle, while bigger and softer tennis balls move more slowly through the air.
Put simply, playing tennis is something many would not have the opportunity or resources to do without the support of ANZ in such a program. And more and more research is emerging to prove that all their activity on the tennis court is also helping them with their studies.
In his book Brain Rules, published in 2008, molecular biologist Dr John Medina argues that there is a direct link between exercise and brainpower. Sitting is not “brain friendly”, Medina says, while exercise improves so-called executive functions such as solving problems and maintaining attention.
"Without a doubt...Li Na will be the most important player of this decade"
Now firmly ingrained in Chinese society, the growth of tennis can be seen in the many world-class tennis academies like Potters Wheel (run by Li’s coach Carlos Rodriguez) and the Michael Chang academy in Mission Hills. And its popularity is undoubtedly due to Li’s success, whose fame is unmatched by any other Chinese athlete. The 31-year-old has more than 21 million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo, and tennis is now the third most popular sport on Chinese television. Women’s Tennis Association chairman and chief executive Stacey Allaster says Li has helped create a tennis explosion in Asia.
“If the Williams sisters had the greatest impact on the first decade of this century then I would say, without a doubt, that Li Na will be the most important player of this decade,” Allaster recently told the New York Times.
And it’s not just Li who has tasted Grand Slam success in recent years, with Zheng Jie and Yan Zi taking out the women’s doubles title at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006, as well as claiming bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The future certainly looks bright for the sport in China – and the next crop of tennis stars.