Chinese tennis has seen a boom in popularity thanks in particular to four notable Chinese female players: Zheng Jie, Li Na, Peng Shuai and Yan Zi. All four women have enjoyed significant success on the world stage. Li Na, arguably the greatest Chinese tennis player to date, won the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open singles titles, and was at one stage ranked world number two.
Doubles team Jie and Zi were China’s first ever grand slam tennis champions, triumphing at the 2006 Australian Open before following that up with victory at Wimbledon the same year. The pair went on to win bronze at Beijing 2008. Peng Shuai, who is still playing, has been ranked world number one in doubles – the first Chinese player, male or female, to top the standings – and won Wimbledon 2013 and the 2014 French Open with her partner, Chinese Taipei’s Hsieh Su-wei.
Such success has led to a substantial increase in interest and participation in tennis in China. The high profile of China’s successful players has helped fuel a USD 4 billion annual market in tennis across China since 2008. Tennis now has an estimated 14 million players, up from 1 million in 1988. Centres of excellence, like the Potter’s Wheel Academy in Beijing, are now helping to create the next generation of talent.
While it was China’s crop of female tennis players who inspired a generation to pick up a racket, basketball player Yao Ming has been one of China’s most visible athletic ambassadors for nearly two decades. He played at three Olympic Games (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008) and had nine successful years in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. Yao was one of the highest-scoring players at his home Olympic Games – where he was also China’s flagbearer.
Beijing 2008 was the first opportunity for many young Chinese fans to see their basketball heroes in action for the first time, and Yao, now retired, has since helped to build an impressive programme across the country. His Project Hope basketball clinics have been attended by more than 150,000 children, and Yao has also helped build school facilities and courts in many rural areas.
“For me, basketball isn’t just a game, it is an education,” Yao said. “We help schools in places where they are short of PE classes. In our week-long basketball camps, hopefully they enjoy themselves – and learn courage, teamwork, attitude. We have 350 schools in our programme, and we are very proud of that. We want them to go home with memories of the game, and also new friends.”