Tennis star Yan Zi comes out of retirement for the Hong Kong Open - but not as a player

Tennis star Yan Zi comes out of retirement for the Hong Kong Open - but not as a player

In winning grand slams, Yan Zi helped boost the sport's profile, and now she's back as assistant tournament director of the Hong Kong Open


Yan plays 10-year-old Candy Wai Yee-ching (left) of the National Tennis Squad.
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Yan Zi made history by winning gold medals with her partner Zheng Jie at the 2006 Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships.

Two years after her retirement, Yan is back in the game - not as a player, but as assistant tournament director for next month's Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open.

But she had to fight to get into the spotlight. It might feel like tennis is a pretty well-established sport, but as recently as 10 years ago, it was practically ignored on the mainland. Yan says tennis was not considered very important and her team usually stood at the back of any sports parades.

Considered simply as participants before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, rather than potential winners, they did not get as many resources as other sports teams.

"We didn't get much funding, so we had to take care of our own coaching and medical treatment," says Yan.

But there was a glimmer of hope when her compatriots Li Ting and Sun Tiantian won gold in the doubles at the Athens Olympics. Yan's grand slam wins also spurred the growth of tennis on the mainland. Thanks to their success in international tournaments, the sport received more support from the government and sponsors.

"At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there were more physiotherapists to deal with our injuries and offer us treatments like massages and stretches. They also helped us mentally prepare for the games and gave us some stress management tips," Yan says.

Yan's success was perhaps thanks to the fact that she got to train with the mainland's other top players - Li Na, Zheng and Peng Shuai.

"We always competed with each other as part of our training. They pushed me to improve. I became more competitive because I was so determined to beat them, and reached a higher level that helped me to prepare for the international tournaments," she tells Young Post. But she admitted that they were top-class players, especially Li, who won two grand slam singles titles.

With more funding from the government, Yan felt the pressure. "Growing support from the public also meant mounting pressure on us, the players. It really motivated me to do my best. I also felt like it was a good way to give back to my country," she says.

Yan says being a professional athlete is all about focus, never giving up, and good physical fitness.
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP

Apart from public support, her attitude played a significant role in her professional career.

"The most important thing for any sportsperson to remember is to stay focused. Whether I was training or playing a match, I concentrated and did my best. I kept telling myself: I can do this," she says.

She encourages aspiring players to adopt that "never-give-up" attitude.

"When my opponent was beating me in a match, I had to think out of the box," she says. "Instead of using the same strategy, I had to think about others that could take me to a favourable situation. I also had a partner who I could discuss the strategies with and gave me mental support. I loved the team spirit that only double matches have."

Everyone knows practice makes perfect, but for Yan, this isn't enough. She says that physical fitness is the key.

"Professional tennis players are prone to injury, but competing in tournaments is important to improve your ranking, so it can be tough on your body. That's why being in peak physical condition is so important."

For any aspiring tennis players out there, Yan suggests they start young.

"Coaches should be encouraging players to join international tournaments when they're around 13. This allows them to compete against other top players and improve their game. Ideally, they would have some sort of financial support, because players need to pay for coaches, admission fees, transportation, medical bills and other expenses," she says.

As she prepares for the Open next month, Yan is excited to be part of an event that can help get more people in Hong Kong interested in tennis. "There are not many international tennis tournaments in the city, so this is a good opportunity for Hongkongers to see how they compare to top players from other countries."

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Putting tennis on the map


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