Asian Tennis Seeks a Homegrown Star



There is already one verifiable improvement in Singaporean tennis since the WTA Finals moved to that steamy and affluent island city-state.

In 2014, the first year Singapore hosted the championships, no woman from the country held an official WTA ranking. Now, with the latest edition of the year-end tournament set to begin on Sunday, Stefanie Tan, a 24-year-old from Singapore who played tennis at Texas Christian University, is No. 547.

Tan, of course, has a long, long way to go to become a threat to qualify for the Finals, an annual showcase for the world’s top eight women’s singles players and doubles teams. But she does represent progress, which is one of the things the WTA was looking for when it brought these championships to Asia.

Another is the bottom line: Singapore offered the organization more than $70 million for five years.

Although Sania Mirza of India has again qualified for the event in doubles and remains a celebrated figure in her country, what the Finals really need to generate regional buzz is a true women’s singles star from Asia.

Li Na, history’s most successful Asian women’s player, peaked at No. 2 in the rankings and was the first Chinese player, and the first from Asia, to capture a Grand Slam singles title when she won the French Open in 2011. She also won the Australian Open in 2014.

But Li retired abruptly at age 32 in 2014 to start a family and rest her ailing knees. Her popularity is such that Forbes estimated she earned $14 million last year, more than any other retired female athlete.

Today, there are 11 women from Asia in the top 100. The highest ranked is Zhang Shuai, a 27-year-old from Tianjin, China, who was contemplating retirement at the start of the season because of disappointing results but went on to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open as a qualifier. She has yet to reach the final of any tour-level event this year but is ranked 27th.

Zhang is now a focal point at the WTA Tour’s increasingly numerous Chinese tournaments, but generating real excitement in the wake of Li’s success will presumably require more major titles.

“Li Na’s rise to a Grand Slam champion has elevated the sport so much in China,” said Sam Duvall, president of Topnotch Management, the United States-based agency that represents Zhang.

“Obviously there has been a significant uptick of participation and awareness of the sport as a result of her success,” he added. “But the stakes have changed for the next great player because she has set the bar so high. Even if Shuai wins two Slams, she won’t reach what Li Na did in terms of dollars.”

One woman in position to make a big move both competitively and commercially in Japan is Naomi Osaka, even if she does not speak fluent Japanese.

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Zhang Shuai of China is the highest-ranked Asian woman. Zhang, 27, was contemplating retirement at the start of this season but went on to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals. Credit Julian Finney/Getty Images

Osaka, who trains in the United States and recently signed with the influential agency IMG, has a Haitian father and a Japanese mother. She just turned 19 and is already ranked 40th. At 5 feet 11 inches, she has the power to challenge the establishment, and she reached the final in Tokyo last month, losing to Caroline Wozniacki.

“I think the commercial upside is huge,” Duvall said. “I was just in Tokyo talking to people about her, and a lot of people think she has the talent to be in the top 10 and compete for Slams, but she also has a look that is very different, and from what I understand, the Japanese people love it.

“She has to improve her Japanese a little bit. It’s a work in progress. She has to embrace the culture, but from what I hear, there’s a lot of excitement.”

The temptation from afar is to view Asia as one market, but the huge size, breadth and diversity of the region, as well as its national rivalries, argue against that.

“It’s market-specific,” Duvall said. “My view is that Japanese fans are not latching onto the next Li Na in China, and I don’t think Chinese fans are latching onto the next top-10 Japanese player.”

China, with 10 women in the top 200, and Japan, with nine, are the clear leaders in the region. But Suresh Menon, the Asian development officer for the International Tennis Federation, said there were common concerns about the quality of infrastructure, player development, coaching education and domestic competition for juniors in other areas.

Menon said that clubs were not focused enough on developing young talent and that a lack of clay courts in the region put Asian prospects at a disadvantage against players who had grown up on the slow, tactically demanding surface. Menon also said he believed that the climate of much of Asia was problematic.

“You can’t have quality training outdoors for long periods in some places because it’s very demanding on the players,” he said.

The tennis grail — in commercial terms — would be an Indian man or woman challenging for Grand Slam singles titles or a Chinese man doing the same, following in Li’s footsteps.

For now, those players are purely theoretical. No Chinese or Indian man is ranked in the top 150 in singles, and the top-ranked Indian woman in singles is Ankita Raina at No. 284.

Mahesh Bhupathi, the former Indian doubles star who is the founder of the Asian-based International Premier Tennis League, said India would welcome a homegrown success on the level of Kei Nishikori, the Japanese tennis star who has become a consistent presence in the top five of the men’s rankings.

“If we did have a tennis player who was performing like Nishikori, we would have the same kind of explosion, if not bigger than there is in Japan,” Bhupathi said. “I think tennis is safely the No. 2 sport in our country after cricket, and cricket is not even considered a sport here. It’s a religion.”