Monday, December 27, 2004

2005 Intriguing Questions #7-8

Less than a week away from the start of the 2005 season, it's time for the nation-building section of this year's IQ's. Don't worry, nothing political here. We're only dealing with tennis revolutions.


Amidst the ascent of the Russian Horde, there has been another quiet uprising brewing on the WTA horizon.

As hinted at in one of last year's IQ's, Asia -- specifically, China -- is the corner of the world where the most tennis growth will come next. The first champions are already being born, as 2004 saw the Fortune Cookies begin to make some of their initial introductions to the denizens of the world's courts. And more, maybe more, are surely yet to come.

Most of the Chinese women's appearances have been semi-private occasions, taking place behind the Great Wall. Soon, two questions will have to be asked and answered: just how well will the Cookies do in the "real world," and when will the Chinese tennis federation feel the urge to unleash its charges on the circuit in full force? With the Olympics not set for Beijing until 2008, it still might be a while before fortune cookies begin to vie with borscht as the post-match snack of choice when it comes to discussing the future of the women's game. But with more success will come more opportunity for the likes of Na Li, Jie Zheng and the other Chinese groundbreakers to be bigger parts of the widening tennis landscape.

It should be fascinating to see how things play out with the Chinese players in the coming years. Remember, back in the late '80s/early '90s, another Communist regime began to build the foundation of an effective tennis empire. And as China takes the steps to join the wider community of nations as a whole (economically and otherwise), tennis could play a small part in a similar "domino theory" to the one that ultimately brought us the Horde. Encroaching Capitalism and Western culture (including sports) could go hand-in-hand in effecting even the government's shape and direction in the superpower's future. We're already seeing the signs of change in China (McDonald's, anyone?), and it's difficult to stop "progress"... unless you use tanks, of course (but the Chinese already tried that once). Change within an insular society will come more easily not by the barrel of a better rifle but through the desire by the people for a "better" life. That process has already begun.

After years of holding back (likely fearing defection, much like the old Soviet bloc states), the likes of Yao Ming is now allowed to play basketball in the U.S. Soon, the Cookies will travel more, too... and tennis will become yet another tool helping to lead to a gradual societal transformation. How long before a Natasha Zvereva-like player comes along and demands to be paid for her victories just as her foreign counterparts are, rather than be a "subject" of a federation, as the Belarussian-born player did back in 1988 in the first real bucking against the Soviet sports system? That lady might not be in the jar of current Cookies, but she'll arrive one day. Eventually. They always do.

It may take a Natasha-style "revolutionary" for the Chinese to fully penetrate the WTA psyche. At this point, not many have actually seen too much of them unless they've racked up their frequent flyer miles behind the Wall. Still, the prospects for the sport's continued growth in Asia is fertile indeed. The WTA Tour has followed the ATP's lead in scheduling more tournaments there, and the Australian Open has led the way by catering more to the region each year (for 2005, the tourney's moved the men's final four hours later in the day to benefit Asian audiences, no matter that it means it'll take place at 3 a.m in North America and will no longer be aired live there). See, this latest revolution means change for everyone else, as well. After finishing with just one player in the Top 100 and two in the Top 200 at the end of 2003, the Chinese numbers increased to three and six at the end of 2004.

The names (no matter whether you list them surname first or not -- I won't here, for consistency's sake) are starting to become more familiar, too. Jie Zheng (#79) was the first of the Cookies to make some noise on the WTA Tour late in '03 (defeating Tanasugarn en route to her first Tour SF in Tokyo), but she lost her nerve (and a 6-5 and serving 3rd set lead, losing 8-6) against Ai Sugiyama in the Olympics 1st Round in Athens, what could have been a true watershed moment was lost... as was Zheng's place at the top of the Cookie heap. Her "replacement" was 22-year old Na Li. Li (#78) didn't waver in qualifying and then taking the WTA's Guangzhou event in September, becoming China's first WTA singles titlist after defeating the likes of Jelena Jankovic, Vera Douchevina and Martina Sucha (in the final). She also put together a 29-match ITF winning streak in 2004 while winning five titles on the season (giving her 19 for her career), and held two match points on Svetlana Kuznetsova in their match in Beijing. Others to keep an eye on in 2005 will be #80 Shuai Peng, #174 Ting Li, #127 Tian Tian Sun and #178 Nan-Nan Liu.

For 2005, I'll predict Na Li's rise into the Top 30, Zheng and Peng's into the Top 50, and Liu's into the Top 100. #296 Zi Yan, though, might make the biggest leap (she showed her potential by defeating Na Li late last season). Also, look for one of the Cookies to get to the QF of a slam this season (Zheng made the 4th Round at Roland Garros last year). Plus, I'll go with one of the Chinese doubles teams (probably Ting Li/Tian Tian Sun) finishing in the Top 5 in the WTA points race. Last year, T.Li/Sun was #10 (they upset Black/Stubbs in Oz for their most headline-worthy victory) and Yan/Zheng finished #12.

Beyond the next few seasons, though, only time will tell whether the immense Chinese population will produce an equally large contingent of contending Cookies. We know how the fledgling Soviet model eventually turned out. Just look at the rankings. One wonders if the Chinese women will maintain the camaraderie of the Russian Spartaks, though. The Russians have pulled each other along to each next higher level, inspiring and supporting one another all the way. The non-Spartak Supernova notwithstanding, that closeness is probably the REAL key to the Russian tennis revolution... and it might be the most important component with this latest one, and could go a long way toward helping to foster additional transformations within Chinese society. We can only hope, right? For everyone's sake.

Okay, so I lied when I said the tennis "nation-building" wasn't totally absent of politics. Oh, well.



As the Russians and Chinese build up their numbers, what's the next country whose fortunes are about to tick upward? What new "revolution" will be one of 2005's ongoing storylines?

Looking around, there are several nations that staked claims in '04 and are worthy of consideration. Amongst them, Argentina (with Gisela Dulko), the Netherlands (Michaella Krajicek) and even the already-loaded France (behind Amelie Mauresmo is Tatiana Golovin and her Pastry co-horts Camille Pin, Severine Beltrame, Marion Bartoli and Youlia Fedossova). But I'm seeing this contest coming down to two contenders for Backspin's magifying glass this season: Serbia & Montenegro and the Czech Republic.

For the longest time, the most successful former-Yugoslavs were Monica Seles and Jelena Dokic, though neither were even representing the countries in which they were born at the time. Dokic, now 21, is back under Belgrade's flag, but 2004 saw her star fall (to #125) as her old/new countrywomen surpassed her in the rankings. 19-year old Jelena Jankovic outgrew her "other Jelena" costume, winning her first WTA title in Budapest and finishing at #28. Meanwhile, Ana Ivanovic, 17, claimed five ITF crowns and is on the cusp of the Top 100 (#101) as the 2005 season commences.

But, because the numbers simply favor them, I'm gonig to go with the Czech Maidens for the "next revolution" tag. Actually, it's more like a "retro-revolution." Years after the split of the old Czechoslovakia into two republics in the late '80s, it finaly appears that the formerly high-flying tennis system is up and running again. Before there were a slew of Russian "'ova's," the Czechs had cornered the market. You used to see Czech-born stars all over the tennis map, from Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, to Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova. Czech-born players won 23 slams from 1978-98 (and were RU's 23 more times). Since then, they've put up a big zero on the grand slam final stage (Swiss star Martina Hingis, remember, was named for Navratilova but was actually born in Slovakia) over the last six seasons. But that could change soon. 2004 concluded with two Czechs in the Top 50, and seven in the Top 100, with all of the top young stars (save Daja Bedanova, a junior star in the late '90s and one-time Top 20er, who has seen her ranking sink to an unbelievable #410) looking as if their very best years are still ahead of them.

There might only be one youngster (15-year old world #75 Nicole Vaidisova, a two-time WTA titlist in '04) currently with true slam champ potential, but the depth is there. Maidens won three WTA singles titles last year, and were RU's four other times. Hana Sromova, 26, won six ITF titles (tied for the circuit lead), and 29-year old Kveta Peschke (formerly Hrdlickova) returned to the court to intriguing success late in the year, winning three ITF crowns. She could be on track for one of those fun late-in-career surges this coming season. The Maidens will cause even more trouble in 2005. Look for 21-year old Iveta Benesova to follow up her initial WTA title in '04 with another this season, and Barbora Strycova, 18, to advance to her first WTA singles final. 22-year old Klara Koukalova will finally get her first WTA title, and Peschke will win her first big circuit crown since 1998 en route to taking a handful of Comeback Player of the Year awards.

But it's the axis that is Vaidisova herself on which this revolution will spin. The teenager became the 6th-youngest WTA singles champ ever when she claimed her 3-V title (Victory for Vaidisova in Vancouver), and only seemed to grow in stature as the year progressed (winning again, in Tashkent). What Golovin was in 2004, look for Vaidisova to be in 2005... and maybe a bit more. She'll grab three more titles and rise into the Top 25 despite her age restrictions, and will pull off at least one truly shocking upset as she busts her way into the QF of one of this season's slams. Another hard-hitter with ties to Nick Bollettieri, Vaidisova might be something very big lurking in the shadows behind the other sudden teen stars. Watch out, Supernova, Contessova and the Frussian Pastry, "Darth" Vaidisova is already looking over your shoulders. Sometime within the next three seasons, she'll end that drought of Czech non-appearances in slam finals... and might just become the first since Novotna ('98 Wimbledon) to win one.

All for now.


NEXT UP: the IQ's go from tennis revolutions to "de-evolutions"


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