Qinwen Zheng was eleven years old in 2014, when China’s Li Na won the women’s singles championship at the Australian Open. Zheng has talked often about Li, who was something of a one-woman tennis wave in her home country. Not until tennis was reintroduced as an Olympic sport, in Seoul, in 1988, had there been much tennis at all in China. (Li’s first racquet sport was badminton.) But, like so many other Western things, it began to catch on there in the nineties, and its popularity grew in the new century. A Chinese team won the women’s gold medal in doubles at the 2004 Olympics, in Athens. Li’s rise brought tennis’s prominence to a whole other level. In 2011, she won the French Open, becoming the first Asian-born player, female or male, to win a Grand Slam. Three years later, tens of millions of television viewers in China watched her best Dominika Cibulková in that Australian Open final. Zheng was among them. “In that moment, I was still a child, and then she gave me a dream that, oh, the Asian player, the Chinese player, also can win a Grand Slam,” she recalled last year. By then, Zheng was in Wuhan, about two hundred and fifty miles from home, at a tennis academy, where she’d gone, in 2010, at her father’s urging, and where she lived for four years.
As this year’s Australian Open gets under way this week, Zheng is widely considered to be among the most promising of the youngest players in the women’s game. (The only younger player ranked above her is Coco Gauff.) She is tall, at five feet ten; her topspin-lathered forehand is penetrating. She’s rangy and aggressive, and, when her first serve is on, it’s formidable—in her first-round match against Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko at last summer’s U.S. Open, she struck twenty-one aces. She trains tirelessly and brims with confidence. She has, in sum, the makings of Li’s successor. Many people, not only in China but in the business of professional tennis, have been hoping and planning for a player like her ever since Li hoisted her major trophies a tennis generation ago. (Li, dogged by knee injuries, retired not long after her victory in Australia.) China was supposed to be where tennis would grow in the twenty-first century—where new events on the tour would be held, with Chinese companies sponsoring them lavishly; where racquets and sneakers would be sold in such numbers that the country would rival the U.S. as a market for tennis gear; where girls, especially, would take to tennis, with the best becoming stars of the game. (Boys were already crazy for basketball; there is just one Chinese player currently in the A.T.P. Top 100, Zhizhen Zhang, who is ranked No. 96.)
New élite tennis academies run by Western coaches opened in Chinese cities; sports-management agencies went to China in search of talent. (By the time she was a teen-ager, Zheng was being managed by IMG, which also represented Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.) The Australian Open began branding itself as the Asia Slam, and worked to lure Chinese sponsors, tourists, and TV-rights deals. By 2019, tennis was estimated to be a four-billion-dollar business in China, second only to that in the United States, and growing at a faster rate. Zheng by then had moved from Wuhan to Beijing, where she was tutored by the Argentinean coach Carlos Rodríguez, who had worked with the Belgian star Justine Henin and, near the end of her career, Li Na. Ten W.T.A. tournaments were held in China in 2019, two more than in the United States. (There were men’s tournaments, too, in China, but fewer.) The W.T.A. Finals were held, for the first time, in Shenzhen, which had outbid a number of other cities worldwide and secured a ten-year deal to host the tournament. The tournament’s total prize money that year was fourteen million dollars, five million more than that of the A.T.P. men’s finals, held in London; the singles winner, Ashleigh Barty, earned $4.42 million, the most that any player had ever won at that point at a tennis tournament. It looked for all the world that China was undergoing the sort of boom that tennis hadn’t seen since the American fever for the game in the sixties and seventies.
But there were also signs that building the future of what is arguably the world’s most prominent women’s sport in an increasingly oppressive authoritarian state might prove financially and morally precarious. Widespread street protests in Hong Kong against mainland China’s interference in the semi-autonomous city’s government led to the cancellation of the Hong Kong Open. Just months before the 2019 W.T.A. Finals got under way, the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center, where the tournament was to be held, was used by Chinese paramilitary officers as a staging ground to warn Hong Kong protesters that China’s government could unleash a forceful crackdown. The W.T.A. stayed mum about this. “We’ve had nothing but a great relationship with China,” the W.T.A.’s president, Micky Lawler—a key strategist of the association’s expanded presence in China—told the Times, in October, 2019. “They have been very good partners. The reason we love working in sports is because it’s not supposed to touch anything but positive human connections.”
We’ll stick to sports, in other words. But that position would prove untenable within months. Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak early in 2020—the lockdowns, travel bans, and other measures taken under what is known as “zero COVID”—led to the cancellation of all international sports events in China. Then, in November, 2021, the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai wrote a post on the social-media platform Weibo accusing a former Chinese vice-premier of having sexually assaulted her during what she described as a years-long, on-again-off-again affair. The post was deleted within twenty minutes, and discussion of it was censored in China; Peng, the winner of two Grand Slam doubles titles, disappeared from public view. The W.T.A. announced that it was suspending all its tournaments in China because it was unable to communicate with Peng directly and be reassured of her safety. She would eventually resurface, during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, held in Beijing—the only international sporting event to be held in China since the outbreak of COVID-19—in a carefully staged interview, during which she claimed that her Weibo post had been misunderstood. Her fellow tennis players were not reassured by this.
There has been no women’s tennis in China for three years. Will there ever be again? Was the boom a bubble? China has changed its COVID policies and is reopening to the world, but there is no indication, as yet, that it is ready, or eager, to stage international sports events. Steve Simon, the W.T.A.’s chief executive, has said that he’d like to resolve the Peng matter but that he sees no signs that China will conduct an inquiry into Peng’s allegations, which he believes is necessary. Without tournaments in China, women’s tennis faces significant financial challenges. Prize money at those tournaments—likely invested, in part, in the hope of burnishing the country’s image on the world stage—was often higher than at similar events held elsewhere in the world. That money will be hard to find in Europe and America. The 2022 W.T.A. Finals were held in Fort Worth, Texas, last fall. Many seats were empty, and the total purse was about a third of what it had been in Shenzhen three years before.
Meanwhile, Qinwen Zheng is no longer in China. She has been living in Barcelona for the past few years, training there with her coach, Pere Riba, aiming to improve her footwork on Spain’s red clay, something that many élite players have done in recent years. She has been quite forthcoming with reporters in her press conferences about her own personal journey, but she has been careful not to talk about China’s COVID policies or its handling of the Peng Shuai case—careful, really, not to talk about China at all. How good a player she will become is anybody’s guess. What seems clear is that, like every other tennis player, each in her way, she is out there, now, on her own, playing, ultimately, for no one but herself. ♦
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