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TENNIS

China and its tennis talent

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THE GREAT CALL:  China's Li Na has broken a barrier of sorts, but a lot of it had to do with state support

It was the summer of 2002, and I had just moved to California after my marriage. I got a call from a friend to practice with the Chinese tennis team that was in California for a short break. I had played against the girls many times in recent matches and so I went along to practice. There were about seven to eight girls including Jie Zheng, Li Ting and a few others ranked in the 300s to 400s on the WTA tour.

The Chinese team was in the US for three months to play the US circuit and was travelling with two coaches. After about three hours of intense hitting, we all took a break and the coach told me, "We are preparing for the Olympics. " I assumed it was for Athens Olympics in 2004, but he quietly said, "No, we are practicing for Beijing. " I looked at him incredulously and thought this man had gone mad!

In India, our national teams are announced a couple of weeks prior to an event and usually there is a small camp leading up to it. I had never heard of a country planning and practicing for an event six years in advance. Hell, even a year ahead was like eons from where I came from!

Just two years later, two of the girls I practiced with that day won the Gold Medal at the Athens Olympics. Li Ting and her partner Sun Tian created history and totally transformed the face of women's tennis in China. They achieved their goals much earlier than expected. After that gold, more money was poured into structured programmes for grass-root level tennis and for talented juniors. China now has nearly 30, 000 tennis courts and an estimated 14 million people regularly play the sport.

Li Na popularised it more by entering into the top 20 in the world and being a serious contender for Grand Slam titles. With Li Na's recent French Open title, tennis will assume more importance. It is already the third most popular sport in China.

I was in China twice last year, the first time to play some tournaments as a warm-up before the Commonwealth Games and next for the Asian Games in Guangzhou. In the ITF events, I was the only foreigner in a qualifying draw of 64 entries. The level of tennis in that $10, 000 women's event was higher than some of the $50, 000 challenger tournaments in India. All the Chinese players travelled from various provinces as a team with a coach. There are so many advantages when travelling as a team as there are good practice partners, a coach to oversee training and matches, security, cost effectiveness amongst many others. I often wished for that when I travelled alone in Europe as an 18-year-old from one tournament to the next.

China has taken goal-setting, planning and execution to a whole new level. It is obviously pure magic when all the elements in this equation like players, coaches, parents, tennis federation and the government are single-mindedly working towards a common goal. I am also sure that are some pitfalls and challenges that are associated with such a strict regime, but they seem to be able to overcome these quite effectively.

India has a long way to go to come close to China's progress in tennis. When I first turned pro, everything I did was by trial and error - starting from entering tournaments to choosing the right tournament to securing my own visas to buying my air tickets. We never had more than one pro tournament in India and due to this I had to base myself in Europe, away from my family for two years.

I know as a junior Sania Mirza's parents have sacrificed a lot to give her the best possible training and opportunities. After her junior Wimbledon doubles title in 2003, she may have got more sponsorship, but in terms of training and practice Sania has had to do it alone. In my opinion, she would have benefitted most if she were part of a team of girls when she had just transitioned to the women's tour. It's always easier and more fun to do physical fitness like gym work, plyometrics, quickness drills, stamina and weight training when it's done in a group. It's also proven by the Chinese that when a competitive group practices with a systematic approach, miracles happen. Years ago, I was the only woman from India going from week to week on the pro tour and now, a decade later, Sania is the only woman from India going places there.

In India, we have never had a proper structure to identify, guide and nurture youngsters in a completely professional environment with everyone working together towards one goal. There are some academies that are quite professional, but they work independently of the All India Tennis Association (AITA) or the sports ministry. It would also be great to see more sportspersons involved in this entire process. But first and foremost, we need to accept the fact that big changes are needed. Only then can things fall into place.

(Nirupama Vaidyanathan was the first Indian woman to win a round at a Grand Slam, the 1999 Australian Open)

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