When China was first mooted as a potential host for the Masters Cup in 2002, the boldness of the men who masterminded the plan was underpinned by the belief that such an extravagant event being captured by the Chinese would embolden the youth to take up their rackets and flood the courts. The estimate is that 130 million Chinese are now “interested” in tennis and five million play it, a number split evenly between men and women. The construction of tennis courts here multiplies 15 per cent a year.
In professional terms, the women have forged ahead, with Ji Zheng reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon as a wild card last year, doubles players crowding in on the best ranked in the world and Peng Shuai having the audacity to defeat Venus Williams, the five-times SW19 champion, in Beijing last week in a manner that got everybody in a lather.
What the Chinese have yearned for is a man who can mix it with the elite. Although a 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 victory over Dudi Sela, of Israel, in the first round of the Masters is not up there among the blockbusting triumphs of all time, Zeng has made a material breakthrough.
There were plenty of empty spaces in the interview room afterwards — it would have been standing room only had Nadal been in the chair — so the Chinese obviously had trouble getting their heads around a 28-year-old wild card playing so wild and free. But there was a proud Zeng, China’s male No 1 at No 396 in the world, quietly revelling in his notoriety.
Beating Sela, ranked No 44, is no small achievement. He recently played against Spain in the Davis Cup semi-final and how Israel can produce players of the calibre to reach such a level while Britain are facing up to life in Group II of the Euro/Africa Zone is beyond comprehension. Zeng put it down to having a calm mind. “The difference in ranking, first of all, makes people feel maybe I will be easily defeated, but this may not be the case in the real court,” he said.
“Chinese players don’t have a lot of opportunity to attend top-level competitions, so I have to thank the organisers for giving us the chance to have a match together with the top players, no matter whether we win or lose. This will be very helpful for us to find our problems and also to make progress. For me, each and every match is very important indeed.”
Next up for Zeng is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Frenchman, hot from victory in the Japan Open in Tokyo and gathering a significant head of steam towards making one of the eight places in the Barclays World Tour finals at the 02 arena in southeast London next month.
That sensation will be all the mightier tomorrow when he joins Juan Martín Del Potro, the US Open champion, aboard the Maglev, the train that takes seven minutes to cover the 30 miles between Pu Dong airport and the centre of the city. The pair are going to play mini tennis while the train hurtles along at speeds topping 400km/h.
Courtesy of Neil Harman……The Times.