© Getty Images

Already home to some of the ATP World Tour's most popular events, China now awaits a breakthrough player.

Is China Tennis’ Next Frontier?

Djokovic, Nadal Laud Nation’s Potential

When Michael Chang broke through at Roland Garros in 1989, a 17-year-old Chinese-American who moon-balled and scoop-served his way past the steely Ivan Lendl en route to becoming the youngest male champion in Grand Slam history, folks began to wonder if China would be spurred by the tenacious teen’s early-career success.

There have since been plenty of success stories out of Asia. In 2003, Hyung-Taik Lee became the first Korean to win an ATP World Tour title, in Sydney. That same year, Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan became the first Asian-born man to crack the Top 10 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. And last year at the US Open, Japan’s Kei Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Slam singles final, and the 25-year-old remains a Top 5 force. But while players like Li Na and Shuai Peng have made inroads on the WTA Tour, China — home to consecutive ATP events in Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai — hasn’t had much to brag about on the men’s side. That’s surprising considering that China has a talent pool of some 1.4 billion people to choose from.

But that doesn’t mean Chinese men aren’t close to a breakthrough. The 2008 Beijing Olympics clearly raised awareness in the world’s most populous nation and put the sport in the spotlight, and the development of players like Ze Zhang, Di Wu and Yan Bai is proof that things are heading in the right direction.

“It’s a question of tradition, a question of years,” said Rafael Nadal in Beijing, where he’s playing the October 5-11 China Open. “This country has an amazing potential. I am sure in a short period of time the next generation will be there fighting for important things on our Tour.”

“You need good coaches, you need good centers, good academies,” continued the 27-time ATP World Tour Masters 1000 winner. “I think today China has an amazing potential to send players outside of China to the best academies of the world that will be a good experience for the young players, and at the same time has the right potential to create the right academies here in China to have all the facilities possible, all the needs possible for young kids.”

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic echoed that sentiment.

“I'm sure they will produce some high‑quality players,” said the Serb, who defeated Zhang, a player he says has Top 100 stuff, in the second round in Beijing 6-2, 6-1. “It's just a matter of how much you really invest and dedicate time and energy and funding to the sport. Bring in the experts. China is a very stable economic market. I'm sure if they find an interest to support men's tennis, it will be great for our game. You already have many great Asian tournaments, in China specifically. People here need a home player.”

But Djokovic also cautioned that success won’t come overnight.

“You need to invest in a systematic planning and development,” he explained. “It all starts from a very young age, the way they approach tennis, approach life…I don't think it's an issue for them to bring in coaching experts, or other sport‑related experts to help the development.”