China’s Peng Shuai: How her tennis career almost ended

Written by Staff Writer by Jenny Wong, CNN Beijing-China; Written by Deborah Cheng Yu, CNN Beijing-China

One of the great mysteries of Chinese tennis, post-Tennis-League, has been how to handle the rise of the country’s tennis golden child, Peng Shuai.

For 10 years, the 2008 Beijing Olympics silver medalist has been pumping out the goods, winning grand slams and ascending the tennis ladder. But the prospect of a global one-match suspension, pitting her against a coterie of prodigies who like to agitate for change, was enough to torpedo her career.

With little fanfare, the International Tennis Federation last week reversed the decision that had suspended her from the singles and doubles competitions at the upcoming WTA-ATP Finals for a year, effectively ending the situation.

While the ITF argument was largely that, because of her high standing in Chinese tennis and the effect she had on her fellow young Chinese players, it was not in the best interests of the sport to send a message, her manager and coach say that the ITF position was not viable.

“They don’t want to be doing this to a billion people,” said Yu, China’s top tennis agent.

Well, she’s right — not for the ITF or the WTA, but for China.

‘Every country is flawed’

The suspension overshadowed a stunning year in which Peng won four majors, including her second Wimbledon crown.

Peng shimmered in the sunlight, sunshine, colour and energy that had sprouted from her record performances.

The pressure to excel in China drove the rest of the young Chinese players insane. “Every country is flawed. Only a talented athlete can turn negative energy into positive energy,” said Yu.

World No. 27 Peng also faced an off-court battle.

In May, after years of interpreting loud, demeaning locker room comments during matches, she claimed she had been bullied by pro-Wimbledon player Garbine Muguruza after the latter fell to the Chinese star at the French Open.

“We need the ITF to show true compassion in this matter,” said Peng.

Muguruza, a twice major winner, denied there was any bullying.

Her statement was followed by a slap-down by the ITF, which pulled Peng’s doubles and singles ranking points, effectively ending her year.

Four months later, the situation seems to have been resolved.

“Li Xiaoxia, Peng Shuai and members of the team will now be allowed to participate in the season’s final tournaments following an ITA consultation,” the statement from the ITF said.

It’s not business as usual

China’s tennis scene is fickle and a culture shift at its core. Meanwhile, several of Peng’s fellow Chinese players seem to be entering the NBA. The result is they now tour the world’s super circuits with the mentality of professional athletes.

“If your best partner is a koala bear who plays for a wild card entry in the Japanese qualifying tournament, the two of you will still be a powerful team,” said Yu.

She said that Chinese tennis was simply evolving.

“It’s not that our players are fundamentally bad. They’ll make their own choices, a bit like the American athletes doing tennis away from professional team sport.

“People need to stop dismissing China as a country of 10,000 racquet-wielding players who will never be a factor at the top level of professional tennis.”

It has been a tough 12 months for Chinese tennis.

Chinese tennis is a figure of debate China may have to get used to, two elements of the country’s sports landscape moving in tandem in equal parts to distinguish sports from other sorts of societal change. Wang Xiyu/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

On the same day Peng had her suspension lifted, Sun Bingping had the opportunity to put her best foot forward, with a successful Futures title at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.

By the end of the year, Sun will enter the ATP World Tour rankings.

Whether or not she has the chops to stand out in the rankings, the experience and development must be seen as a welcome catalyst to advance the fortunes of the Chinese sport world at large.

“The ITF looked at the growth of Chinese tennis in the last two years, and decided to waive the ban to allow more younger players to take their chance,” said Yu.

“This decision shows that the ITF is trying to look at the bigger picture. It’s not all about exposing younger players to the ATP to turn them into tennis stars.”

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