Perhaps the only thing standing between Zheng Jie and global stardom, is that no Westerner can say her name properly. Television commentators have long battled with the pronunciation and after she reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2008 an interviewer from the BBC was even forced to ask her how to pronounce it.
It’s the ‘Jie’ that causes the real problems. But if tennis pundits hoped this phonetic conundrum would just slip down the rankings, they’ve had a bad week. That’s because – to Chinese delight – the Chengdu-born tennis star reached the semi-final of the Australian Open. It got better: compatriot Li Na also made it to the last four, beating Venus Williams. Both lost in the semis, but as CNN says, the pair have “sent the whole of China into euphoria”. AFP concurs: “Chinese tennis is on a high.”
The week’s plaudits go mostly to the five foot four-and-a-half Zheng who can go home in the knowledge that she is the first Chinese tennis player to reach two grand slam semis. Nicknamed ‘Little Jie’ the 26 year-old was inspired to take up tennis watching Steffi Graf.
Zheng’s and Li’s stunning performances also vindicate their decision to leave China’s state sport system at the end of 2008. That system trains athletes from a young age in special programmes and looks after every aspect of their lives and careers. For the most part the system has been a success: its results-driven focus saw China top the gold medal count at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But it can also lead to an “overbearing and rigid” approach, admits the China Daily, leaving little opportunity for personal freedom or self-expression.
By leaving the state sports regime, both were able to keep a lot more of their earnings, but also had to organise their own coaching, travel and expenses. Zheng, in particular, found her first year tough – her world ranking sagged – but her heroic performance at the Rod Laver Arena has now positioned her as one of China’s most bankable sports stars.
And she feels her success will help promote tennis in China, where the game is gaining ground on table tennis and badminton. But why have the women fared better than their male counterparts in international tennis?
“It is a hard question. Everybody wants to know,” Zheng says. “Maybe the men need to work harder.”
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