Chinese Tennis No Longer Overlooks Zheng

Copyright The New York Times
July 3, 2008
SHANGHAI — As a child athlete, Zheng Jie was always looked down upon — literally — for her diminutive size, passed by in favor of the taller, faster girls that China’s tennis establishment thought were the answer to the burgeoning arms race in the women’s game, where power and size have been the trends for a generation.
When players were selected for training in the United States, or for other marks of confidence from a state sporting system that tightly controls the destinies of most athletes, Zheng was always left standing in the wings, treated as an insufficiently promising second fiddle to bigger girls like Peng Shuai and Li Na.
“She was really upset because she knew that she was no worse than the others in terms of her skills,” said Chen Yuwen, a former coach of Zheng’s on her native Sichuan’s provincial team. “We had to counsel her, and I told her frankly there was nothing wrong with the nation wanting the best athletes to be trained, and that physique was an important factor they had to take into account.”
Over the years, the 5-foot-4 ½ Zheng became used to being consoled in this way, but she never let it dull her competitive fire. In the end, she took inspiration from another coach’s advice. He told her that her best strategy would be to always be ready to compete, in case a sudden opening came about.
“You might not be among the great hopefuls, but you can make yourself available when they need you,” the coach told her. Another coach gave her a picture of Michael Chang, the relatively short American who won the French Open in 1989, for encouragement.
The biggest opening of Zheng’s career materialized last week at Wimbledon, when she was offered a wild-card entry into the women’s singles bracket despite being ranked No. 133 in the world.
The 24-year-old Zheng has made the most of the opportunity, counterpunching a succession of bigger players into submission — including the newly ranked No. 1 player, the 6-foot-2 Ana Ivanovic, who could find few answers for Zheng’s deep, flat ground strokes and superior court coverage in a third-round match last Friday.
Zheng won that encounter, 6-1, 6-4, in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. Expectations have been rising as Zheng has made victories over much bigger — and far higher-ranked — women appear increasingly routine.
Next up for Zheng is a semifinal match Thursday with Serena Williams, a two-time Wimbledon champion who, with her sister Venus, helped popularize the push for greater size and strength in women’s tennis.
“Anything is possible,” the China women’s coach, Jiang Hongwei, was quoted as saying in an interview published Wednesday by the news service “We shouldn’t be scared by big names.”
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