Saturday, March 26, 2011

Peng Shuai flourishes under freedom

Peng Shuai was introduced to tennis at age eight by an uncle who was a famous tennis coach in China. At 13 she had to have heart surgery, which almost took her out of the sport – a story that Adidas would later highlight in their “Impossible is Nothing” campaign. Peng first came to attention in 2001 when she received a wildcard into the $10,000 ITF tournament at Baotou and defeated her much more famous  countrywoman, Sun Tiantian, 6–1 6–4 in the semi-final. In 2007 Peng worked with Michael Chang – that other Chinese player by way of Hoboken, New Jersey —and saw her rank climb into the Top 50. Under the regimented control of the Chinese government, she managed to win some doubles events. She has yet to win a WTA singles title.

But perhaps her biggest breakthrough came some two years ago when the Chinese government changed its rules and began to allow some of its top athletes to manage their own careers, to include spending more time on the international circuit getting exposure to top-level competition. Along with other Chinese women players like Zheng Jie and Li Na, Peng has been enjoying the benefits of this new freedom and her performance has steadily improved.

Today the benefits of that freedom were cemented in her crushing defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova at the 2011 Ericsson Open. Peng did a fantastic job of taking the ball early and changing its direction, often going behind Svetlana to win easy points. Peng took early control of the match and simply never let go. Playing double-handed on both sides, and producing some hard driving points in between shots that can only be described as semi-moonballs, Peng left Sveta looking flat-footed and deflated.

But this article is really about freedom. It’s funny how you can take freedom for granted when you have so much of it. Not that life in the US is perfect – it isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination. But I can’t imagine any Chinese player with the arrogance of an Andy Roddick or the sense of entitlement of John McEnroe back in the day. It’s just not done. And it’s going to be interesting to see how long this freedom lasts, and whether it’s going to be curtailed the minute any of these women do something that is perceived as shaming of their country of origin.

I am reminded of the Chinese writer, Ha Jin. Most famous for his novel “Waiting”, my favorite of his writings is his short stories. If you have not yet read it, please buy and read his collection called “The Bride-groom”. In “The Woman from New York”, Chen Jinli leaves her husband and daughter to find an imagined better life in New York. Rumors soon start seeping back home about her immoral life in the big city. When she returns, her husband’s parents refuse to allow her to see her daughter. She is treated as an outcast. It is a heart-wrenching story that is sparely but beautifully written.

I thought of this as I found myself wondering exactly how much freedom do these Chinese players really have. I mean really, in a sense there is no such thing as freedom. We all have to follow rules and be guided by the mores of culture and society, no matter how far away that culture may be located. Those of us who elect not to, end up as outcasts, like Chen Jinli. But freedom is also relative, and I think that it is fair to say that some of us have way more freedom than women living in countries like say Afghanistan.

This question of freedom is so intertwined with culture. Take for example the persistent rumor that Aravane Rezai got into some kind of altercation with her Iranian father in Melbourne earlier this year. What is fact is that the result was that he has been indefinitely banned by the WTA. What remains unclear is who was the victim. Initial reports claimed that Aravane herself was beaten by her father; later reports described a confrontation between the father and her boyfriend. Aravane herself has remained silent on the subject.

But my point is this – although Aravane was born in Saint-√Čtienne, France, her parents are Iranian. That an Iranian father would reportedly put his hands on his 23-year-old daughter may seem far-fetched to those of us living in the West. But in his original culture, her tennis career may have remained limited to that of picking up balls for her older brother who would have been the one expected to have legitimate success. From his cultural perspective, his behavior may seem perfectly reasonable. And while Aravane is the product of his apparently longstanding obsession with producing a # 1 player, I would be shocked if her own feminine needs and feelings are factored much into his thinking.

But this entry is about Peng Shuai and her Chinese cohorts, and they way in which they seem to be flourishing under their new found freedom. Some people do not do well if freedom is introduced too early or if they never learn the skills of managing this freedom. Jennifer Capriati is probably the best example of how not to handle personal freedom. It’s easy for some to self-destruct when they are free to do anything they want. It’s hard to imagine this group of Chinese women making similar mistakes. They all seem to be thriving in a way that makes their government look good for taking this risk, and makes them look even better for proving that most women do just fine when given the independence and freedom to forge their own paths.


Anonymous said...

I don't know this player but the comments about how politics have affected her situation is interesting.

David C. Lim said...

Peng Shuai as a tennis player has shown tenacity, perseverance and steadiness in spite in her medical problems ie acute appendicitis etc
She worked hard for the ranking she now has and deserves it and I believe will improve on it.
She came from a training program provided by her goverment, moved to the States for further traing and return the favor with a gold medal for China in the olympics.

David C. Lim said...

My apologies, it was a gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games won by Peng Shuai.

Ashmess said...

Tennis Chick,
Anyone who speaks approvingly of freedom and flourishing, and means it, gets my vote, my affection, maybe my clothes and furniture, my Donnay and my Volkl. Well, I reserve the right to borrow the sticks now and again.
Ash Messenger, Los Angeles