PARIS: Li Na’s momentous French Open title win of 2011 was expected to open the floodgates for Asian—and in particular Chinese —players in world tennis.
Two years on, little has changed with sixth-ranked Li being the only Asian player currently ranked inside the woman’s global top 30.
Compatriot Peng Shuai is 34th, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-Wei is 42nd and Ayumi Morita of Japan is one step further back.
India’s Sania Mirza is now more focussed on her doubles play, while at 35 years old Tamarine Tanasugarn is firmly in the twilight of her career.
Li apart, none of the Asian contingent is expected to progress far in the draw on the claycourts at Roland Garros and that will come as a blow to the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Stacey Allaster, who has identified Asia as the bright future of tennis.
Allaster, who has recognized the importance of Li to the sport, is pulling out all the stops to commercialize the women’s game on the continent, especially with flagging interest in the United States.
“She is the most important player of the decade for me,” Allaster said recently.
“Tennis in the Asian-Pacific region has a lot of growth potential and the region could have nine tournaments next year if the season-ending WTA Championships is moved to Singapore or China’s Tianjin.”
As it turned out, Singapore won that contest to host the biggest tournament in the women’s game outside of the four Grand Slam events.
Li’s season to date has been somewhat of a roller-coaster, starting with a magnificent run into the final of the Australian Open in January where she lost to Victoria Azarenka after an epic battle which left her with a badly sprained left ankle.
That injury sidelined her until March when she returned to action at Miami, losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.
Moving onto clay, Li lost in the final at Stuttgart to Maria Sharapova, but she then went out early in both Madrid and Rome.
Key to her chances in Paris will be the presence of Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of
Grand Slam winner Justine Henin, who has been helping the Chinese player since last summer.
Asked in Madrid what he brought to her game Li replied: “I have been training so hard with Carlos.
“I was so happy he could come to my team to coach me. I think for me, he’s not only tennis coach. I think after I was working with him I feel much stronger in my mind and also much stronger on the court.”
“I have to listen to him because I trust him a lot.”
On top of that Li believes that she will come into Paris with less of the spotlight on her compared to last year when she was the defending champion.
“Last year in the French Open I didn’t have any experience for being a defending champion. So, you know, I was feeling like, how you say, a little bit too much. If you do something always the camera was next to you.
“So I think this year should be better because I’m not the defending champion.”