The contrast to my first visit to China, in 1987, could not have been starker. At that time, Chinese people mainly dressed in traditional green/brown clothing (many with a green cap adorned with a red star) and the wide roads had four lanes for bicycles and only one lane reserved for cars - quite the opposite of today.
"China has exploded into the 21st century, and tennis is a prime example of that growth and modernisation."
Paul McNamee, Grand Slam winner and noted sports administrator
Yes, China has exploded into the 21st century, and tennis is a prime example of that growth and modernisation.
Back in ‘87, I had been invited to visit a Beijing Sports Institute, to give some advice on their tennis program. When I looked at the row of courts, I couldn't believe the humble state they were in.
Poor fencing, old nets, cracks on the courts (clearly not having been resurfaced for a long time) but, worse, a film of dirt and grime covering the hard court surface. Taking it all in, I asked: "Can you show me the table tennis centre, please?"
My hosts were probably wondering what table tennis had to do with tennis but they escorted me into a modern building with scores of new tables, all equipped with new nets and the latest bats and balls. Pristine, as you'd expect in a nation which was dominating international table tennis. So my message was simple: "If you want to be good at tennis, the facilities need to be world class, just like table tennis.”
Fast forward (almost literally) to my visit to Suzhou, a provincial city with a state-of-the-art tennis facility that boasts a centre court with 6000 seats, 12 outside courts, club facilities including lavish gym and change rooms, cafe, dorm accommodation and access to education.
What more could kids in greater Suzhou want? This model is being replicated in dozens of cities in China, so the investment in tennis in the last 25 years, but especially the last decade, has been staggering.
The figurehead, of course, is Li Na, the first Chinese player in history to win a Grand Slam singles title, as she did at Roland Garros in 2011. Li Na dared to take on authorities in order to have the freedom to map her own journey, and recently adorned the cover of TIME magazine, deservedly as one of the 100 most influential women in the world.
The China Open in Beijing has just concluded, and this week it’s the Shanghai Masters, by far the biggest ATP event held each year in Asia.
In the late 90's, when it was called the Shanghai Heineken Open, it was the only Tour event in China. The Masters now boasts outstanding facilities, with a soaring stadium covered by a retractable roof in the shape of a Lotus flower as centrepiece, and free-standing show courts.
China's contribution to tournament tennis is immense, particularly on the women's side, as it will host no less than ten WTA tournaments in 2015 (there were just two in 2008). It's no exaggeration to say that China has become the epicentre of women's tennis world wide.
But just when everything was travelling so well, with Li Na winning her second Grand Slam title, the 2014 Australian Open in January, it came as a massive shock when she announced her retirement just a few weeks ago. With off-court earnings reported at $23.6 million this year alone, the 32-year-old was forced to succumb to her struggles to stay fit and healthy.
Li Na's playing career was suddenly over, leaving many people pondering the question: what effect will her absence have on the sport in China?
They would recall how there was a lull in German tennis after the retirements of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, where the lack of a replacement 'superstar' saw a massive fall in the game’s popularity, as measured by participation and TV viewership.
Germany’s biggest men's tournament, in Hamburg, was significantly downgraded, and the biggest women's event, in Berlin, was sold to the Middle East. One could rightly say that in the wake of the historic one-off that was Becker/Graf, German tennis has never been the same.
Will there be a similar downturn in China? Has the Li Na bubble burst?
There is no definitive answer to that question but the tennis fundamentals in China are sound. The infrastructure is in place in countless cities nationwide, and the shadow cast by Li Na will be long. And I think that is something I’ve seen more broadly in China, something my bullet train trip reinforced: regardless of some ups and downs, China’s infrastructure and ambition is permanent.
Li Na has helped introduce the most populous nation on earth to the sport of tennis and, according to the China Tennis Association, inspired 12 million people to now be playing regularly.
There's also been significant investment in men's tennis, with quality coaches such as Joachim Nystrom and Peter McNamara now on board. The lack of an obvious successor to Li Na does loom as a concern, as no-one will ever be able to stand in her shoes and traverse her journey.
On the other hand, because of her engaging personality, the pride she brought to China and her willingness to stay involved, she will still be there inspiring the next generation.
So my hunch is the China tennis boom will level out a bit. But the state of the game in Asia should remain buoyant, with Kei Nishikori becoming the first Japanese player in history to reach a Grand Slam singles final, at the 2014 US Open in September.
So in a couple of years I suspect we may be talking about the tennis boom in Japan. China has risen, Japan is rising, and Asia is taking its place at the top table of international tennis. It'll be some ride, especially for those in the tennis business in the Asia/Pacific rim.
Paul McNamee was the Tournament Director of the Australian Open from 1995 to 2006, and instituted its tagline "the Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific". One of his current roles is coaching Su wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei, who recently won two Grand Slam doubles titles partnering Peng Shaui of China.
*ANZ is a sponsor of the Shanghai Masters and the Australian Open