Can Qiang Wang follow in Li Na’s late-blooming footsteps?

by: Steve Tignor | September 28, 2018

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Qiang Wang had gone as far as she could go. All she had left were tears.

Two weeks ago, the 26-year-old native of Tianjin, China, reached the semifinals at a tournament in Hiroshima. Last week, she won her second career title, in Guangzhou. And this week she reached the semifinals of the Premier 5 event in Wuhan. By Friday, she had played 11 matches in 12 days. After she won the opening two games of her semifinal against Anett Kontaveit, Qiang Wang’s legs—both were heavily taped when the match began—couldn’t take anymore. She lost six straight games, before finally retiring early in the second set.

Kontaveit looked sorry for her opponent when they met at the net. Qiang Wang had struggled on in obvious pain, far past the stage when most players would have packed it in. The reason was obvious; this was the biggest opportunity of her career so far. She was playing in front of a Chinese audience, in the hometown of Li Na, in a highly-lucrative tournament, one that the WTA had wedged into its already crowded calender to try to take advantange of the interest that Li Na had generated in tennis in the world’s biggest emerging market.

For the better part of two decades, tennis has been relying on the “if you build it, they will eventually come,” theory of audience creation in Asia. Next week the women will head to Beijing for a Premier Mandatory event, and they’ll close their season with the WTA Finals in Singapore, before coming back to China for a post-season-ending event in Zhuhai, China.

This vast push Eastward makes sense for a game that has never had national boundaries. The population is there, the money is there—Wuhan’s purse is $2.7 million—the sponsors want to be there, and the arenas and events are there, in abundance. The fans? They’re there, sometimes. They come to the later rounds of tournaments, they come to see star players, they came out to see Qiang Wang this week, and they always root enthusiastically. Other times, though, they don’t come out at all. The highly-anticipated first-round encounter in Wuhan between Aryna Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina this week was played in front of a small sea of empty seats.

What the sport could use is a player who can pick up where Li Na left off, who can walk through the door she opened in China. Could that player be Qiang Wang? Until this season, there wasn’t much reason to think so. She had never won a tournament, she had never been past the second round at a major, she had never cracked the Top 40. She seemed to be another in a line of very solid Chinese players capable of pulling an upset, but not starting a movement. She didn’t have the ground-stroke weapons that took Li Na to No. 2 in the world.

Qiang Wang still doesn’t have those weapons. But she has won two titles in 2018. She has beaten Venus Williams and reached the third round at the French Open. She beat Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Monica Puig in Wuhan. And she   reached a career-high No. 34, making her the No. 1 player in China for the first time.

In another era, those accomplishments might have seemed like little more than a fluke coming from a 26-year-old. But this is a different era—you might even call it the post-Li Na era—when late-blooming champions have become the rule rather than the exception. When Li Na turned 27 in 2009, she had reached a total of one Grand Slam quarterfinal. Two years later, she won the French Open.

Can Qiang Wang follow in Li Na’s footsteps? Probably not that far. But after the last 12 days, we’ve seen where her talent can reasonably take her. Becoming a visible part of the tour—challenging for titles, making it to televised rounds—on a regular basis would be an important step for a Chinese player. Even if Qiang Wang doesn’t have a Top 5 game, she does have a watchable one; she’s a shotmaker who’s not afraid to take her shot. Her win over Venus Williams in Paris was one of my favorite live-viewing experiences of the season, and in Wuhan today she showed a desire to perform for her fans even when logic said she should quit.

Tennis may never see another Li Na. But it could be happy with Qiang Wang.

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