Li's win highlights China sports overhaul

China's state-run sports system is known for its rigid structures and harsh methods, but Li Na's Grand Slam breakthrough shows how the machine is undergoing a major overhaul with Western help.

Updated: June 10, 2011 16:05 IST
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Beijing: China's state-run sports system is known for its rigid structures and harsh methods, but Li Na's Grand Slam breakthrough shows how the machine is undergoing a major overhaul with Western help.

Li was one of a group of players to step away from state control in 2008, allowing her to choose her own coach and schedule. After she lifted Asia's first Grand Slam trophy at the French Open, the results are plain to see.

And with a growing clamour for reform of the notorious government training centres, the signs are that China will increasingly look to foreign expertise as it shifts focus from accumulating Olympic medals to cracking elite sports.

"Li Na's win is going to have a huge impact not only for China, but Asia," Carlos Rodriguez, head coach of Belgian star Justine Henin's 6th Sense - Potter's Wheel Tennis Academy in Beijing, told AFP.

"This is a sign to all the people that in China there is a great champion today and maybe there are some other champions to come because of Li Na."

6th Sense, based in southern Beijing's Chaoyang district, shows how China has become willing to draft in outside help to groom its future stars.

The centre, allied with other Henin training camps in Florida and Belgium, has 22 outdoor and indoor courts, mini-courts, a pool, gym and jogging track, and offers short-term and full-time programmes for adults and children alike.

Among hundreds of players to visit this year was none other than Li, who was once forced into China's badminton system but rebelled. Last Saturday, she was backed by a foreigner -- Denmark's Michael Mortensen -- at Roland Garros.

6th Sense's Rodriguez, who coached Henin to seven Grand Slam titles and 117 weeks as women's number one, said he has signed a six-year deal to work at the academy -- enough time to turn teenagers into world-beaters.

"We can help them (China) in the structure, in how to learn tennis in another way," the Argentine told AFP.

"I am not saying that the Chinese way is not good, (but) we have another way that maybe they can consider, we can share, and we can be better with everything together.

"The goal for everybody is to try to create, to give to the people another possibility of another Li Na, to bring a girl or a man to the top in a few years."

It's a pattern which is being repeated among major sports after China successfully married its state system with foreign know-how to top the medals table at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, leaving even mighty America in the shade.

But China, no longer satisfied with dominating niche, medal-heavy pursuits like table tennis, diving and gymnastics, is trying to repeat the formula in more prestigious -- and commercially viable -- sports.

Former Olympic hurdles champion Liu Xiang regularly trains in the United States, while China's top swimmers are marshalled by Australian coach Dennis Cotterell.

Since Yao Ming's successful move to the NBA, China's national basketball teams have hired Western coaches.

An unprecedented number of foreign coaches now shout from the sidelines of China's Super League football matches and run the nation's professional basketball clubs.

But the most glaring example is tennis. After the Chinese Tennis Federation urged its athletes to "fly solo" in 2008, Li, Peng Shuai and Zheng Jie have enjoyed improved results, rankings, earnings and popularity.

According to the Women's Tennis Association, 116 million Chinese watched Li's win last Saturday, making it China's most-watched sports event this year with nearly twice the viewership for her Australian Open final loss in January.

6th Sense director Bastien Liveriou said players had already increased from about 10 full-timers in July last year to 450 regular trainees, and the academy had seen a flood of new applicants since the start of Li's breakthrough season.

"After Li Na made the Australian final, we really saw enrollment increase a lot," Liveriou said. "Chinese tennis is becoming more and more serious."

Recently, the academy signed a contract to coach through 2013 the top three men and women players from northeast China's Liaoning province, a traditional powerhouse in Chinese sports.

The goal is for the players to gain a number one ranking in China, and prepare them for Grand Slam events including next year's Australian Open.

"For me this is a big challenge and for (the academy) as well. We are trying to help these players achieve very exciting and very ambitious goals," said Rodriguez.

"To build a champion is a very, very difficult job. You can have very good players, but in the history of tennis there is only a few champions... I am very proud to try to help them."

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