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A Chinese Tennis Star Emerges at a Precarious Time

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PARIS — To maintain things simpler for her Mandarin-challenged Western friends, the rising Chinese tennis star Zheng Qinwen often goes by the nickname Ana.

But if you happen to watch the teenage Zheng hit a forehand, a serve or simply about any shot on a tennis court, her first English-language nickname seems more appropriate.

“At the true starting at IMG, they called me Fire,” she said in an interview on the French Open on Friday, referring to her management company, IMG.

There may be indeed loads of power and fervour in Zheng’s game, as she demonstrated in her second-round upset of Simona Halep. Ranked No. 74 and climbing, Zheng, a 19-year-old French Open rookie with a full of life personality, is some of the promising young players on the earth as she prepares to face Alizé Cornet of France on Saturday on the predominant Philippe Chatrier Court.

But Zheng’s run comes at a very uncertain time for an emerging Chinese tennis star. She is one in all the leaders of the so-called Li Na generation: the group of young Chinese players who gravitated to the sport after the success of Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and long one in all the highest-earning female athletes. “Li Na makes me think big,” said Zheng, just 8 years old when Li won the French Open in 2011.

Li, who retired in September 2014 at age 32, was one in all the catalysts for the WTA Tour’s decision to extend its presence in China, packing its late-season calendar with tournaments within the country including the WTA Finals, the tour’s year-end championships, which moved to Shenzhen, China, in 2019 for 10 years and offered a record $14 million in prize money, including a winner’s check of over $4 million.

But despite the long-term deal, there has yet to be one other WTA Finals in China and no tour event of any kind since global sporting events were disrupted in early 2020 near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Though the tour resumed in other parts of the world later that 12 months, China kept its borders shut to most international visitors and international sports events.

In December, the WTA Tour suspended all tournaments in China due to allegations made by Peng Shuai, a distinguished Chinese player. In a web-based post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault. The post was quickly taken down and online conversation about Peng in China was censored.

The WTA requested guarantees of her safety, a direct line of communication along with her and, most improbably in light of the Chinese context, a full and transparent investigation into the allegations. Peng has since reappeared in public in China and suggested that her online post had been misinterpreted and that she had not made sexual assault allegations. She also has announced her retirement at age 36. But though the difficulty has largely faded from the headlines, the WTA Tour has not lifted the suspension or backed away from its demands for an investigation. It continues to be unable to speak along with her directly and anxious that she has been coerced right into a retraction.

The WTA already has announced that it is going to not return to China this season, and it is feasible even without the WTA suspension that the Chinese government wouldn’t have allowed tournaments to go ahead in 2022 considering that quite a few major cities, including Shanghai, have been locked down in recent weeks because of recent restrictions amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

For now — and maybe quite a bit longer — Zheng and her compatriots are and not using a Chinese showcase for his or her talents regardless that the boys’s tour has not suspended its events in China.

“In fact, I wish I can play at home,” Zheng said. “I comprehend it is China decision, and I cannot do anything. Let’s see.”

The three-year absence of tour-level events in China also implies that Zheng and the opposite Chinese women’s players must remain abroad even greater than usual.

“I’m sad because in the event that they make a whole lot of tournaments in China then I even have a likelihood to return back,” she said.

Zheng, now based in Barcelona, Spain, and coached by Pere Riba, a former top-100 men’s player, has spent much of her short life away from home. Originally from the central Chinese city of Shiyan, Zheng was encouraged by her parents to decide on a sport.

“My parents asked me to choose from basketball, badminton and tennis, and I came upon my favorite sport is tennis,” said Zheng, who also spent two years playing table tennis before losing interest. “I felt like there was extra space to compete. Tennis is a game of selection. It’s not who’s stronger or who’s more powerful or who’s faster. Every decision you make on court can change the match.”

She was an only child but said she moved to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and about 250 miles from Shiyan, when she was just 8. She said she spent 4 years there.

“That was a difficult time for me because I used to be not with my parents at that moment,” she said. “They came around me like once every week or two weeks one time.”

She said it was her father’s decision for her to hitch the tennis program in Wuhan so young. “He saw that I used to be good at tennis, and he desired to see if I could do something,” she said.

The talent scouts soon agreed. IMG signed her to a contract at age 11, not long after her father convinced her mother to make the long journey to america with Zheng in November 2013 to participate within the Nick Bollettieri Discovery Open, an event on the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., that was open to young players without an invite.

“My mother didn’t wish to go,” Zheng said. “But my father said now she is the very best in China at her age so now you might have to see where she is on the earth.”

Her first impression?

“The primary thought I had in the top was, ‘Wow, the sky is so blue,’” she said. “Because China, you recognize, had a bit little bit of pollution at the moment.”

Once on the court, she brought the thunder.

“I happened to be there,” said Marijn Bal, who became one in all Zheng’s agent at IMG. “And the coaches were watching all of the matches, they usually were like, ‘You have got to return. There’s this Chinese girl who’s amazing.’”

Upon returning to China, she eventually relocated to Beijing to coach at an academy run by Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine-Belgian coach who worked with Li at the tip of her profession and had spent greater than a decade coaching Justine Henin, a former No. 1 player.

Zheng said she spent 90 minutes a day working with Rodriguez for several years on technique, tactics and her mentality. “I feel Carlos made the bottom for what I’m immediately,” Zheng said.

What she is now, along with her power game modeled initially after Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, is a threat to the establishment. That features Cornet, a 32-year-old French star in perhaps her final season who could have no shortage of crowd support on Saturday as Zheng makes her debut on center court.

“I’m ready for that,” Zheng said calmly. “I wish to play on the massive stages.”

Until further notice, nevertheless, the massive stages in women’s tennis are all outside of China.

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