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Saturday October 13, 2012

Big boom in Asian tennis

Asia is experiencing exciting times with more players from this part of the world emerging to play tennis at the highest level.

INDIAN tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi will play his last season next year.

The retirement of the Asian tennis legend, who won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles, including three men’s doubles titles with fellow countryman Leander Paes, means that the carrying the flag of Asian tennis will be passed on to the younger generation of players from the continent.

As it is, Asia is banking on 2011 French Open champion Li Na to take its tennis to greater heights.

The 30-year-old Chinese player, who became the first Asian woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, is ranked No. 7 in the world and still plays top-flight tennis.

Then, you have the likes of Peng Shuai and two-time Grand Slam doubles winner Zheng Jie, who still have at least two or three more years to win majors.

Japan has seen the rise of 22-year-old Kei Nishikori who is ranked No. 15 after winning his second ATP title at the Japan Open last week.

Taiwan’s doubles specialists Chan Yung-jan and Chuang Chia-jung are capable of repeating their feats in the 2007 Australian and US Opens where they were losing finalists.

In India, two-time Grand Slam mixed doubles winner Sania Mirza and up-and-coming Rohan Bopanna will fill the void of Bhupathi and Paes when both leave the sport.

Bhupathi and Paes have done all their best to promote tennis in Asia in the past two decades.

Their collection of 25 Grand Slam doubles titles (with Paes winning 13 of them) is enough to inspire Asian kids to pick up tennis and become champions one day.

Bhupathi believes that China is at the forefront of the rise of Asian tennis.

“We did our part in promoting tennis in India,” the 38-year-old Bhu-pathi said in an interview during the China Open held in Beijing recently.

“I think in China they have invested a lot of money. If you invest more in development programmes, eventually you will see the results.”

He said China had achieved much success over the decade in winning the women’s doubles gold medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and producing a Grand Slam women’s singles winner and a near top 150 men’s singles player.

(Zhang Ze jumped to the No. 154 spot after beating Richard Gasquet, ranked 14th in the world, enroute his career best quarter-final finish at the China Open.)

“We had Paradorn (Srichaphan) who was once the top 10 men’s singles player and now Li Na in the top 10 which is great for Asian tennis.

“The facilities they have in China are as good as any Grand Slams in the world, so it’s very exciting for Asian tennis,” he said.

Citing the example of infrastructure expansion in the China Open, Bopanna, who has partnered Bhupathi the whole year, said the Chinese sport authorities added a new stadium to the previous three smaller stadiums last year and upgraded facilities like the players’ lounge this year.

“I think (the facilities at the China Open) are right up there at the top.

“It’s fantastic to see such facilities and the growth of tennis in China,” he said.

Mirza said Asia was experiencing exciting times when more players from this part of the world had emerged to play tennis at the highest level.

She said it might be a lot harder for Asian players to compete with Europeans and Americans because of their smaller body frame, but it wasn’t impossible to beat their western opponents.

“There has been a big boom in Asian tennis. I mean we always have male players from India playing at the highest level.

“I hope with the Chinese guy (Zhang Ze) starting to win, it will give hope to even the men from other Asian countries apart from India. China has raised its level and Li Na has done great for the sport and her country,” said the 25-year-old from Mumbai.

Mirza was among the top Asian women’s singles players between 2005 and 2007 with a career high ranking of No. 27. If not for a slew of injuries, she could have made it to the top 10 or top 15.

She said the injuries had taken a toll on her and she would now mainly focus on doubles to prolong her tennis career.

The good news is that Mirza will be around to win more majors in doubles. So will Li Na who had to dispel talks of her retirement at the press conferences twice during the China Open.

“When one reaches 30, does it mean that she needs to retire? I hope reporters will not ask this kind of question again!” she told the Chinese media.

When asked about her age again by the Western media at another press conference, Li Na reiterated: “Age is nothing. Right now I am feeling healthy. I can still run on the court and am still top in the world. Why should I stop? I should continue my dream and just keep going.”

After a slip in her form this year with fourth round defeats at the Australian and French Opens, a second round defeat in Wimbledon and a first round exit in the London Olympics, Li Na hired former seven-time Grand Slam winner Justine Henin’s coach Carlos Rodriguez.

The new partnership saw her winning again at Cincinnati, her first title since her triumph last year’s French Open, and reaching the China Open semi-final.

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