From shouts of “Vamos”, to endless drop shots and topspin lobs, there is no denying the Carlos Alcaraz effect on tennis in China. The country with a population of 1.4 billion is in the midst of a tennis explosion with courts, competitions and coaches popping up all over the nation. While Alcaraz may be the most popular player, credit must be given to China's frontline stars Wu Yibing, Zhang Zhizhen and Shang Juncheng for getting men's tennis on the big screen.
Nowadays Chinese players shuttle between Beijing and Bradenton, Shanghai and Spain, like morning commuter stops. It is not just the foreign academies that are cashing in on the tennis boom, but the entire Chinese tennis industry; racquets, balls and apparel are flying off the shelves. And the only pickleballs you will find in China come in a jar.
It was not always so. Back in 1993, Australia's Desmond Tyson landed in China on a goodwill mission between the Chinese and Australian governments. Tyson was tasked with assisting the national tennis team with training camps and coach education workshops.
“It was definitely interesting,” remembers Tyson of the early days. “On one end, they had some pretty good players already, and on the other end, they were still stringing racquets with fishing line. But it was very obvious that they were keen to get better.”
China does patience really well. In fact, a common Mandarin colloquialism is: “The winner is the last man standing.” After nearly three decades of heavy financial investment in all areas of performance tennis plus a steady barrage of blue-chip foreign coach influence, China tennis has finally arrived.
While Wu, Zhang and Shang, are providing the inspiration, it is former ATP Tour players like Zhang Ze and Gong Mao-Xin who are supplying the tennis education to the next generation. Today, Zhang is the head coach of the Nanjing Tennis Academy, where many top Chinese junior players train. Gong is coaching young pros and consulting with tennis parents in Guangzhou. Zhang and Gong are part of a wave of Asian former players who played on the ATP Tour and the Grand Slams who have transitioned to coaching. Lu Yen-Hsun of Taipei and Danai Udomchoke of Thailand are also coaching Chinese pro players.
Zhang Ze coaches a young student. Photo credit: Robert Davis
“Credit to the China city teams and government programs for all the development projects that have contributed in one way or another to not just Yibing and Zhizhen's success but a lot of other good players,” says Lu.
Tell a tennis parent in China that their child will need at least 10,000 hours of serious training to become elite, and they are likely to reply with the expression, “There is no sweet without sweat.”
Performance tennis can be a high-risk venture, but it is a risk worth taking for many Chinese parents. Even if their child does not make it to the ATP Tour but becomes good enough to play U.S. collegiate tennis, then the investment was well worth it.
ATP Tour coach Juan Manuel Esparcia took charge of the Beijing City Team from 2014-2016.
“Chinese tennis has done an extraordinarily good job the last 10-plus years,” claims Esparcia. “They built a very solid infrastructure and created a large base of players. The China Tennis Association (CTA) hosted many tournaments of all levels, providing opportunities for their own players and bringing in foreign players who could observe and compare. Over the years, China tennis has developed greatly in all the areas of performance tennis from coaches to trainers and physios.”
Buyunchaokete, 21, earned his maiden ATP Tour win at the Rolex Shanghai Masters Wednesday. Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
There is a magical moment for both national associations and players alike: reaching the Top 100 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. It is how associations measure development and players chart progress. But for some, there is an invisible obstacle that hinders the breakthrough. Call it the belief barrier. Just as Roger Bannister did by running a sub-four-minute mile, thus encouraging other runners to achieve what many thought impossible, China is hoping for the similar breakthroughs now that Wu and Zhang are securely in the Top 100. And with 18-year-old Shang (World No. 158) knocking on the door, it might not be too long before others follow.
Sweden's Joakim Nystrom, who previously coached China's first big hope, Zhang Ze, understands what having a teammate start winning at the highest level can do for a nation.
“When Mats Wilander won the French Open in 1982 at age 17,” recalls Nystrom, “I was ranked about World No. 70. I thought, I beat Mats in practice all the time so I should at least be Top 20. And I began to rise steadily up the rankings. So often when one player breaks through, the others that he practises with feel as if they are good enough and that confidence allows them to achieve a much higher ranking.”
What Nystrom is referring to is called the “Swedish Tennis Miracle”. That is what the Swedish government coined the incredible success of men's tennis following Bjorn Borg's rise to the top of the tennis world. At one point in the 1980s, Sweden had seven players ranked inside the world's Top 25.
It seems a long shot that China could possibly emulate Sweden's success. But who knows what might happen if Wu and Zhang catch fire? As the locals like to say, “First the ripple, then the roar.”