Last month, it marked one year since Zhang Zhizhen, a 26-year-old from Shanghai, made headlines by becoming the first Chinese male player to reach the top 100 in the world rankings in tennis. Just four months later, his fellow countryman Wu Yibing joined him in this achievement and even went on to become the first Chinese male to win a title on the men’s tour, defeating American Taylor Fritz in the process. Zhang is known for his powerful serves and long hair that he keeps in place with a headband.
Welcome to the rise of Chinese tennis, in both player proficiency and infrastructure. If qualifying for grand slam main draws and climbing to double-figure rankings seem relatively modest achievements, it is proof of how historically underserved the sport has been in a country obsessed with basketball (and whose preference in racket sports has long been tennis of the table variety, as well as badminton).
Prior to last year, a Chinese male player had never won a match at a major tournament in the Open era. Chinese tennis supporters have had limited notable players to root for, with Li Na being the standout in the women’s game. Li is the most accomplished singles player in the country, winning two grand slam titles (the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014). Other notable Chinese players include Olympic medalists and doubles experts Yan Zi and Zheng Jie. However, aside from Li, there has not been a consistent presence on the international tennis scene, especially in the men’s game.
This trend is undergoing a shift. In today’s global landscape, countries with questionable human rights histories are using sport as a tactic for soft power and distraction, a strategy that is not new but is now more widespread and bold (as seen in the Saudi Pro League). The Chinese government has also followed suit, investing funds to create a tennis equivalent of their Belt and Road Initiative, where they build infrastructure globally to expand their influence.
Academies established by Western trainers and ex-athletes have flourished, arenas have been constructed, and the sport has become a multi-billion dollar business, ranking second only to the United States in areas such as merchandise, gear, events, and broadcasting.
Based on the global report from the International Tennis Federation, approximately 20 million individuals in China actively play on 30-40,000 courts, making it the leading country in terms of participation. Similar to other countries, tennis is seen as a leisure activity for the middle class and is associated with social status. According to Vogue, the popularity of tennis in China is not just limited to sports, but also encompasses a lifestyle and fashion trend.
The intense efforts have been fruitful, as both male and female prodigies have emerged in the rankings and achieved success. Zheng Qinwen, a 21-year-old player who can hit 20 or more aces in a single match, won her first tour-level title at the Palermo Open this season and made it to the quarter-finals of the US Open (defeating Ons Jabeur along the way). This triumph is matched by Wang Xiyu, a former top-ranked junior player known for her aggressive style, and Wang Xinyu, who claimed the women’s doubles title at the French Open this year.
Prominent talent agencies like IMG are seeking out the most talked-about young players. There are even social media influencers in the world of tennis. In January, 17-year-old Shang Juncheng made history by becoming the first Chinese man to win a singles match at the Australian Open. His accomplishment generated over 32 million views on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. With his dynamic and unique playing style, as well as his rock star earring, many believe he will become a prominent figure in the sport.
The Chinese tennis revolution is exemplified by the Australian Open. In 2018, the distillery Luzhou Laojiao became the biggest Chinese sponsor of the tournament with a five-year, $100m (£82m) deal that involved renaming one of the show courts after one of its liquors. The tournament also collaborates with four broadcast companies solely in China. The tournament’s chief revenue officer stated, “We have openly expressed that China and the surrounding area are a top priority for the Australian Open.”
This position was questioned when protesters, who were drawing attention to the disappearance of Peng Shuai, were forcibly removed from the location. This came after Peng Shuai spoke out about sexual abuse by a member of the Chinese government. Similarly, the cancellation of the 2019 Hong Kong Open was seen as an attempt to divert attention away from the protests against autocracy happening on the island, which raised concerns about the questionable morals at play.
The professional tennis tour has resumed in China this month after a three-year break caused by the pandemic. However, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) had previously boycotted the country due to concerns about the safety and freedom of Chinese player Peng Shuai. Despite WTA’s CEO Steve Simon’s promise that the women’s tour would not return until these concerns were addressed, the lucrative 10-year agreement for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen has played a major role in the decision to resume play in China.
Two weeks ago, Iga Swiatek emerged as the victor at the China Open in Beijing, while Wang Xiyu claimed her first tour championship in Guangzhou. In the men’s division, Jannik Sinner of Italy took home an impressively large gold cup (also in Beijing), Alexander Zverev of Germany triumphed at the Chengdu Open, and Karen Kachanov of Russia was the winner in Zhuhai. This Sunday, Hubert Hurkacz and Andrey Rublev will compete for the men’s Shanghai title.
It is certainly encouraging to witness a group of skilled and affable young Chinese athletes excel, and China’s swift growth and dedication to the sport has received praise from observers like Maria Sharapova. However, it is disconcerting to realize that this success is being used by the government as a means of diverting attention from human rights abuses, such as the mistreatment of the Uyghur population and the censorship faced by Peng and other citizens. It is not surprising, then, that there is one topic that this new generation of Chinese stars appears hesitant to discuss during press conferences: China.