The Weight of the World: Li Na, Zheng Jie and Chinese Sports

It was match point.  Venus Williams waited patiently for her opponent to serve — the toss; serve.  A short rally ensued.  And then, a forehand down the line…game, set, match!

The two players approached the net and shook hands.  Venus then shook the umpire’s hand; her opponent Li Na then shook hands with the umpire.  Then, Venus walks to her chair as Li turns to the crowd to celebrate her victory.


Li Na celebrates during her match with Venus Williams.

The 27-year old Chinese pro, currently ranked 17th in the world, had just upset the seven-time Grand Slam winner and former number one in the Australian Open.  But that was not even the biggest story here.

Earlier in the day, Zheng Jie defeated Russian Maria Kirilenko to make the semis.  For Zheng, this is the second Grand Slam semis, previously making the last four at Wimbledon in 2008.  At that time, Zheng became the first Chinese player to ever reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event.  With both Zheng and Li in the last four, it is an unprecedented scenario where we could see an all Chinese final.

But that will not be easy.  Li must take out the other Williams — Serena — who had to battle back to beat Victoria Azarneka.  And I would be hard pressed to come up with a time when someone has beaten both Williams’ sister in the same tournament, especially in a Grand Slam tournament.

Zheng is taking on former top ranked player Justine Henin, who is playing strong in her comeback.  Henin played very well in the Brisbane International, and has already displayed her abilities in the Aussie Open.

This is the culmination of six years of Chinese government financing and elevation of the sport following the 2004 Olympic gold medal in doubles won by Li Ting and Sun Tiantian.  Ironically, that run in Athens began with the Chinese duo beating Venus Williams, who was teamed with Chandra Rubin.  Is this the start of another run for Chinese tennis?

Or more importantly, is this the start of a run for Chinese sports?  After all, this Australian Open is more than just two Chinese players and the possibility for history (even if just one of the two make it through).  This is about the Chinese athletics and global competition.

China has built its sports program to be on par with the rest of the world.  This has been demonstrated by its progress in the Olympics.  In 1984, a boycotted Olympics but also China’s first since normalization of relations with the West, the Chinese brought in 15 gold medals, good for fourth overall (total medals placed them sixth).  But in 1988 in Seoul, China finished 11th in gold medals (five), but sixth once again in total medals.

Since then, China has pulled in 16 golds (fourth), 16 (fourth), 28 (third), 32 (second), 51 (first).  In terms of total medals, they went from fourth in 1992 (54) to second in 2008 (100).  Not surprisingly, most of these medals came in diving and gymnastics, as well as table tennis and weightlifting.

Now, of course the higher count in 2008 is related to the fact that China hosted the Summer Games.  But the increase in medals and that China actually hosted an Olympiad speaks to the increase in China’s sports status.

Where have you gone, Mengke Bateer?

But China is making its mark in other sports.  Every basketball fan knows of Yao Ming.  But he was not even the first Chinese player to make an NBA team.  Wang Zhizhi was the first Chinese player to make an NBA roster, while Mengke Bateer, an ethnic Mongol, was the first player from China to actually play.

While the other two were less than successful in the NBA, Yao’s success has opened the door for other Chinese players.  Yi Jianlian has remained in a starting role since arriving in the U.S.  Sun Yue made the Lakers roster and was on the team when they won the NBA Championship in 2009.  Furthermore, the WNBA has had a couple of Chinese players in their league.

And competition in Chinese basketball has begun to attract some former NBA players looking for a court to play on.  Former NBA’ers DeMarr Johnson, Dontae Jones, Bonzi Wells and now Stephon Marbury are playing or have played in China.

But it is not just basketball as China is beginning to venture into baseball.  Both the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners have signed Chinese players.  The Yankees grabbed a catcher and a pitcher, while the Mariners took a catcher and an infielder.

The progress of Chinese baseball can be seen in the leap made between the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic.  In 2006, China went 0-3, scoring six runs and giving up 40 runs.  While they still gave up a lot of runs — 19 runs in three games — and scored fewer runs (five), they won a game against Taiwan.  They also played well against Japan (4-0 loss), holding the eventual champions to five hits.  China held their own against South Korea for a couple of innings before collapsing in the middle innings and forcing the mercy rule.

Soccer?  Well…the men’s team has struggled.  They have made only one World Cup final (2002) and did not even make it out of pool play.  They are currently ranked 93rd in the world and despite making it as high as 37th (in 1998), they dropped all the way to 108th last year.

The Chinese women, on the other hand, are a very solid squad.  Currently ranked 12th, they have won the Asian Cup eight times and were runner-up in the 1999 World Cup and the 1996 Olympics.

But, despite what appears to be success, most of this is merely a mirage.  China’s Olympic success is narrowly focused on a couple of sports, albeit some of the more visible (gymnastics).  The explosion of medals in 2008 is due to being the host, which there is typically a spike in medals for the host country.

While Yao Ming has been successful despite his injuries, and Yi is still hanging around, Wang, Mengke Bateer and Sun have all failed.  And the baseball players have a long way to go, despite being signed to major league teams.

Zheng Jie, along with Li, have tremendous pressure on their shoulders.

All of this applies even more pressure to Li Na and Zheng Jie.  There are only three Chinese players in the WTA (Peng Shuai is the third); none in the male ranks.  While both have won WTA events, winning a Grand Slam event would really show that China has arrived in tennis and not just toed the water as it has in other sports.

Even if one or both make the final, it does not signal the arrival of Chinese tennis, as some have insinuated.  Yes, their success dating back to the 2004 Olympics has sparked interest in the sport, just as Yao Ming has done for basketball in the world’s most populated state.

But in a country where face is important, just making the finals is not enough.  Winning will place China on top of the tennis world, if only for a brief period.  It would mean more than the gold in the Olympics, or a reserve winning an NBA ring, or their women’s soccer team finishing second.

So when Li and Zheng toss the ball up in the air against Serena and Henin, it will be more than just a fuzzy ball…it will be the hopes of over 1.3 billion people.

Hopefully they do not double-fault.

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