Xu Shilin is about to turn 17 but Chinese tennis fans are already hoping that she will become the new Li Na. And perhaps she will. The junior player from Zhongshan in Guangdong province is already making headlines, topping the International Tennis Federation’s under-18s female singles rankings.
Born to serve?
Xu’s father is a tennis coach, so she started hitting balls when she was three. As she grew older, he saw her potential and she was soon training out on court for up to five hours a day. At the National Youth Tennis tournament held in Jiangmen in Guangdong in January 2006, Xu took first place in the nine year-old grouping (she was just eight) and came sixth in the competition for 10 year-olds. According to CRI Online, even at this early stage, Xu combined speed and strength with a feisty personality and a desire to win every point.
That same year her father noticed that the famed Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy was enrolling students from China. The family got a visa and moved to Florida. One of Xu’s early memories was watching Maria Sharapova practice (the Russian was trained at the academy, as was Andre Agassi). However, the fairy tale looked like it might unravel, as the family was low on cash and couldn’t afford the academy’s fees of $5,000 a month. An American entrepreneur helped out (he’d met the family in Guangdong and was keen on tennis) sponsoring Xu’s remaining training and tuition – a sum amounting to $500,000 over eight years.
Money well spent?
Her benefactor can be pleased that Xu didn’t fritter her opportunity away, but worked hard to reach the top ranks of the junior game. Her world number one seeding in her age group followed her victory in the singles and doubles at the ITF Osaka tournament last week (she also broke into the top eight of Wimbledon’s junior female singles). As a junior Xu is only allowed to play 12 adult tournaments a year but she already ranks close to 400 in the WTA. Her ambition is to transition quickly into professional tennis and win a Grand Slam title before she is 20.
And if she wasn’t playing tennis
Apart from his favourite sport, Xu’s father also has a passion for the music of Sarah Brightman. Playing it in the car, his five-year old daughter was soon able to mimic the British soprano even though she spoke no English. In 2004 she even sang in front of Brightman when the performer attended a music workshop in Guangzhou. Her renditions of Brightman’s songs got the attention of local media, as well as a Guangzhou performing arts company that wanted to recruit her. But this opportuntity got declined. “Our daughter’s true talent is tennis,” was her father’s firm reply.
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