Largest-ever contingent at US Open testimony to nation's deeper talent pool
The emergence of talented Chinese players is making this year's US Open particularly interesting on the home front.
The Open is the only Grand Slam never won by a Chinese, in singles or doubles, but eight Chinese women made their way into the main draw of the year's final Grand Slam through rankings or qualifiers－the largest homegrown contingent to ever compete in a major singles tournament.
Led by world No 18 Wang Qiang and two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai, four Chinese players passed the first-round test with straight-set wins on Tuesday (Beijing time).
The best efforts by Chinese adult players in New York were back-to-back semifinal appearances by retired Li Na in 2013 and Peng Shuai in 2014, while teenage prodigies Wu Yibing and Wang Xiyu won the boys' and girls' titles in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
Five years after Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won the doubles title at the 306 Australian Open, Li, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this year, triggered a tennis explosion in China by claiming the singles title at the 2011 French Open, then provided another boost by winning her second major in Melbourne in 2014.
This year's Chinese presence in New York speaks volumes for the country's expanding talent pool from the junior to elite levels, said a senior executive with the United States Tennis Association.
"Having a local superstar certainly has an impact on the popularity of the sport and the desire of children to start playing it, which is very helpful in the long term," Lew Sherr, USTA's chief revenue officer, told China Daily last week.
"We are hugely excited about the influx of the Chinese players on the women's side, which is very strong. I think that's indicative of a flow of talent that will be developed over time."
The late-season scheduling of the Open, coupled with the pressure of competing in front of some of the sport's largest crowds, makes it tougher for any player to deliver a peak performance, not just the Chinese, said Sherr.
"There aren't many players who have a comfort level walking onto that stage, particularly for the evening matches," he said. "It can be intimidating... especially for emerging players who haven't played in a stadium this big. That's something they have to overcome to become a champion at the US Open."
After losing 6-1, 6-0 to Venus Williams in the opening round on Monday, China's 38th-ranked Zheng Saisai said coping with the mental challenge is the difference between an average main-draw player and a champion
"The women's game is pretty even nowadays; it's all about how brave you play under pressure and how much confidence you have facing tough opponents," said the 25-year-old Zheng, who won her only WTA singles title at San Jose, California, last month.
Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, including the US Open titles in 30 and 301, said she was impressed by Zheng's game.
"She's playing really well, honestly, confident, does everything well. So it was great to be able to perform well against her," said the 39-year-old American.
After New York, the game's global focus will shift to China, with a string of nine WTA events and four ATP tournaments in September and October.
The rise of the so-called 'China Swing' has sparked some complaints about the heavy workload and long travel from players based in North America and Europe, but Sherr believes the short gap between the US Open and the Chinese season helps boost the sport's popularity here.
"I think what you are going to see in China is the continuation of engagement around the US Open that will span through the China Swing. For us, the proximity is really an advantage," he said, adding that the USTA is eager to explore new business opportunities in China while providing coaching expertise to help grow the sport.