In pursuit of the next Li Na

A strong push by the Women's Tennis Association into China appears to be bearing fruit with six Chinese players in the top 125.

Li retired last September on the eve of the inaugural Wuhan Open in her home city, eight months after winning her second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.   -  AP

The “next Li Na” may not be so far away with several possible contenders emerging, a top women's tennis official said, after the break-out Chinese star quit the sport last year.

A strong push by the Women's Tennis Association into China appears to be bearing fruit with six Chinese players in the top 125, said WTA vice president (Asia-Pacific) Melissa Pine.

Li retired last September on the eve of the inaugural Wuhan Open in her home city, eight months after winning her second Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

Her career was the impetus behind a rash of new tournaments in China, which has eight WTA events this year. The season-ending WTA Finals was also shifted from Istanbul to Singapore.

Pine said the explosion of events, as well as initiatives such as the WTA Rising Stars, where young players have the chance to appear at the WTA Finals, gave up-and-comers important opportunities to rise through the ranks.

“People say 'Who's the next big thing? Who's the next Li Na?'“ Pine said at this week's Sports Matters industry conference in Singapore.

“Right now there's about six players that are ranked in the top 125 in the world coming out of China.

“(With the) WTA Rising Stars, Zheng Saisai was here last year for the WTA Finals and we're continuing to see more and more. So certainly it's a pretty big push for the next big star.”

Pine said a record Chinese TV audience of 134 million watched Li's victory in the 2011 French Open, clearly demonstrating the possibilities of tennis in China.

Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the top women's stars, are among the players who are reaching out to Chinese fans by setting up Twitter-style weibo social media accounts.

And Pine said the WTA's large presence in China gave it the chance to inspire new generations of players who may one day have millions of fans of their own.

“For China and tennis, live events are hugely important for the development. Now that Li Na has retired, who's next? And how are they going to come up with the next Li Na?” Pine said.

“There's a correlation between the number of events a country hosts and the growth and development of the sport. Why is that? Because you're bringing these global stars, these icons into a town, into a city.

“People can actually see them, touch them, get close to them. And that's hugely important for inspiring the next generation, encouraging people to pick up a tennis racquet and play the sport.”