China playing catch-up in tennis

In the United States, I suppose, we tend to take our best tennis players, our vast number of indoor and outdoor facilities, plus the game itself pretty much for granted.

But in the People's Republic of China, organized tennis is barely 10 years old and practically brand new. If that sounds like Rube Goldberg has suddenly given up cartooning in favor of writing, forget it. What you have to remember is that there are millions of people in China who have never seen a racket.

Nevertheless there is a tennis boom in China - sort of, especially among women. The number of females (ages 10 to 35) who currently play the game there and are receiving coaching regularly is approaching the 2,000 mark, according to Shen Jianqui.

Shen is coach of the Chinese women's team that is representing his country this month in the internationally flavored Federation Cup matches in Santa Clara , Calif. This is expected to be a growing experience rather than a winning one for his young squad.

Speaking through an interpreter at the Claremont Tennis Club, where he practiced his team four to six hours a day for almost two weeks prior to the Federation Cup, Jianqui told the Monitor:

''Our young women have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. But there is still much work to be done. When you start a program so many years behind most other countries, it takes years to catch up. We have only two grass courts and only two indoor courts in all of China. Of our 690 courts overall, most have clay surfaces. But in two or three more years, if things continue to go well, we will try to play Wimbledon.''

The four women players Shen brought to the US for the Federation Cup (Hu Na, 19; Li Xinya, 20; Wang Ping, 22; and Yu Liqiao, 25) are among China's 10 best, although their coach seemed reluctant to rank them in any kind of order for the press. But it was obvious from watching them that they can run all day without the slightest hint of fatigue.

Familiar with the expression ''power tennis,'' but unfamiliar with the word 'finesse,'' it took an intrepreter several minutes before he was able to make Jianqui understand the difference.

''Yes, we play what you would call a finesse game,'' Shen admitted. ''But we also try to teach our girls to be aggressive by encouraging them to come to the net often and not merely remain baseline players. Most of the time they do not return service well and they are not strong servers, either. We must work in this area.''

Andrea Fletcher, a director of the International Tennis Federation, which helped arrange the team's US tour, and the teaching pro at the Claremont Tennis Club, also worked regularly on strategy with Jianqui's charges.

Fletcher, who won the California state women's doubles title with Billie Jean King in the early 1960s, will take her teaching skills to China for the fifth time later this summer. Asked to evaluate the progress of the four women, she replied:

''They are very strong physically and move extremely well on the court, but at this point in their careers none of them could get even a game against any of our top 10 pros. Basically they rank somewhere between our 30th and 50th best tour players. Even when they get ahead and are going well, they still don't know how to close out a point against a veteran player.

''But when you consider that most of them have had only four years of instruction and that the majority of their experience is on clay, they have done remarkably well. The point is it takes time to adjust to our harder, faster courts, especially when they are often asked to compete against players who are better to begin with. A lot of times I've noticed that they tend to overhit when a simple placement would have done the job. But they are wonderful girls to work with and extremely quick learners.''

According to Jianqui, tennis rackets as good as those produced in the United States retail for only $10 in China; tennis balls are $1.50 apiece; with pay tennis costing spectators 10 to 15 cents a ticket. Occasionally an important match will appear on television, but not often.

Fletcher says that Chinese-made rackets are much inferior to ours and that most Americans wouldn't even try to play with them. The balls, highly rubberized, would be rejected for the same reason.

When Andrea and I played an exhibition against two of the Chinese players, I noticed that all of us were using American-made equipment. They beat us, mostly because I was hitting custard pies that came back with remarkable accuracy!

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