Off the court, the sixth-grader from Wuxi, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, speaks quietly and gently. But when it’s game time, she’s laser-focused as she chases the ball, moving energetically across the court.Children tennis in Shanghai
Despite an overall trend of declining health and athleticism among Chinese children, a growing number of young people are taking up tennis — a sport invented in the U.K. in 1873 that barely existed in China less than two decades ago.
Like many others, Ni began playing tennis in 2011, when China’s former world No. 2 women’s tennis player Li Na became the first from Asia to win the Grand Slam championship title at the French Open. Li’s success led to a domestic tennis fever, and that same year, Ni’s father and coach, Xi Zhiye, began training his then-5-year-old daughter.
“There was a surge in the number of Chinese teenagers starting to learn tennis that year — some of the parents thought the sport could be a possible future for their children,” said Xi, who quit his job in securities trading two years ago to focus on his daughter’s tennis training.
In her age group, Ni is a top player: Last year, she won third place in the national Zheng Jie Cup teen tennis tournament. The 11-year-old is a short-distance runner and a soccer player on the school teams, but it’s her tennis ability cultivated over six years of intensive training that has won her the most medals.
“I like playing tennis. It helps me relax after school,” Ni told Sixth Tone. “I’m the only one at my school who plays tennis, but I don’t feel lonely — I make friends at different tournaments, and they’re all excellent tennis players.”
The number of tennis players registered at Shanghai’s 16 government-run children’s sports clubs has increased tenfold since 2007, from 100 to 1,075 today, according to the city’s tennis association. A decade ago, only five of the 16 district clubs offered tennis, but now each has a team, said Xue Lei, vice secretary-general of the association. Tennis is also being offered at schools alongside other sports as part of a wider push by the Chinese government to encourage children to stay active.
Xue attributes the increased interest in youth tennis to the sport’s growing profile in China. In 1998, the international tennis tournament Heineken Open came to Shanghai, making it the first world-class tennis competition in the country. The Tennis Masters Cup and ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments followed a few years later. Earlier this month, the Shanghai Masters entered its ninth year, drawing top international players like men’s singles champion Roger Federer.
“Many young parents today grew up watching these tennis games or following a certain star tennis player,” said Xue. “Motivated by their own interest in the sport, they started bringing their children to the court.”
This is certainly true for Ni, whose father began playing tennis as a hobby in the late 1990s and remains a loyal fan of Federer. Xi couldn’t wait to start teaching his daughter the sport when she turned 5 — considered the minimum age for children to start tennis training.