MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — China has begun its search for the next Li Na, and one of the juniors with the talent to replace the country’s two-time Grand Slam champion may speak better English than she does Chinese.
Xu Shilin, who just turned 17 and goes by the English name Coco, was the first Chinese girl to be No. 1 in the world junior rankings and won the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games last year. She has also told the Chinese media that her goal is to win a Grand Slam title before she’s 20.
“It is a goal and a dream. Of course, I’m working toward that,” she said at the Australian Open, where she was the top seed in the girl’s singles draw before losing Wednesday in the third round. “I think anything is possible.”
Xu’s rise has been unique compared with the previous generation of Chinese players because her parents decided to develop her talents outside China’s state-run sports system, choosing instead to move to Florida where she could train at top private academies.
Such freedoms were only made possible due to Li Na and a few other current players, who broke free from the state system years ago and were allowed to manage their own careers and keep their own prize money. This paved the way for the next generation of players to choose their own paths.
Xu’s parents made a big decision when they saw how much talent she had at age 8. Her father, Xu Yang, sold the small tennis club he owned in Guangdong province and moved the family to Florida for nearly six years.
“Her father rolled the dice,” said Xu’s manager Terry Rhoads, who is managing director of Shanghai-based sports consulting firm Zou Marketing. “They didn’t live well. They struggled.”
Because Xu was talented, she was invited to train at several different academies and began to climb the junior rankings in the U.S., attracting the interest of the United States Tennis Association, Rhoads said. Instead of having Xu play for the U.S., however, the family decided it was time to return to China.
It wasn’t an easy transition at first because Xu’s Mandarin had become so rusty, she was afraid to speak at times. But she’s becoming more comfortable now and has already attracted a number of sponsors.
Rhoads compares her career trajectory with that of Japanese star Kei Nishikori, who also lived in and trained in the U.S. for many years.
“If you ask me this is what China needs to do with a bunch of the boys,” he said. “Coco got tough. She grew up. She saw how difficult it was for her parents.”
Other top juniors are taking similar paths, choosing to train at private academies in China where they receive coaching, education, room and board and travel expenses in exchange for a percentage of future prize money earned.
After Xu’s loss in singles at the Australian Open junior tournament, she played a girls doubles match against one of these homegrown players, 16-year-old Zheng Wushuang, who trains at the 1123 Junior Tennis Academy in Beijing and is now China’s second-ranked junior girl. Xu and her Australian partner Sara Tomic won that match, but lost in straight sets in the semifinals Thursday.
Sitting courtside Wednesday, Yi Ping, the founder of the academy, said she has only taken on seven of China’s most promising players in order to maximize the resources she can provide them. One of China’s largest insurance companies, Ping An, is the academy’s main sponsor.
“With the academy becoming more famous, there are more junior players who want to come in,” Yi said. “But we want to see the great potential in players and decide if we want to have them. We want to have all the top junior players in our club.”
Xu, who now has a Belgian coach, believes her father made the right decision for her development.
“I think it’s very different than going down the traditional Chinese route,” Xu said. “I got a lot of good experience from that time,” in Florida.
Rhoads said Xu is already fielding questions from the media about becoming the next Li Na. But he said it’s going to take some time before Xu is anywhere close. Li won her first major at the French Open in 2011 at the age of 29.
“I think if the Chinese fans and the media are patient, they’re going to see something special,” he said. “Li Na didn’t hit her stride until she was 24, 25 years old.”
And although she admires Li’s career, Xu doesn’t want to be compared to anyone.
“I respect her a lot. I like her a lot. But I just want to be myself, obviously.”
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