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Japanese, Chinese women making net gains on tour


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SAN FRANCISCO -- Add female tennis players to the list of top quality athletes emerging from Asia's leading economic powers, China and Japan.

Two weeks ago at the $1.3million Acura Classic near San Diego, the biggest WTA Tour event on U.S. soil this summer, three of the four semifinalists hailed from the two countries, including China's No.1 player Shuai Peng, who halted Kim Clijsters' 26-match win streak on U.S. hardcourts. "I see her in the top three one of these days," Clijsters says of her 19-year-old opponent.

Led by No.31 Peng, China has three players in the top 100, the most in its history, and six in the top 200.

Veteran Ai Sugiyama, 30, is the highest-ranked woman from Japan at No.26. She is one of five Japanese in the top 100, and one of 10 in the top 200. "That's pretty good for a small country," says Sugiyama, who was upset by China's Jie Zheng on Wednesday in Toronto.

Elite players from the Far East have been rare. But that trend is reversing. Driving the change are economic, cultural and social factors.

Japan has a growing number of smaller tour events where upstart players can pick up ranking points without traveling abroad. Competition for lessons and court time at proliferating tennis academies has increased as more youngsters flock to the game, though available real estate for courts remains tight.

"Even in our academy, kids are waiting on a list for tennis lessons," says Sugiyama, who runs a small training center near Tokyo. "That shows that the sport is popular."

With the fastest-growing economy in the world, a deep tradition in racket sports such as badminton and table tennis and a burgeoning middle class, China could be the next tennis superpower.

Hints of this began to emerge last year. Jie Zheng, 22, opened the floodgates in singles when she reached the fourth round at the 2004 French Open, becoming the first man or woman from China to do so. That was followed by China's first gold medal in tennis at the Athens Olympics, won by the doubles pair of Li Ting and Sun Tiantian.

In October, Na Li, 23, became the first player from China to win a WTA title, in Guangzhou, and Peng, a hard-hitter who trains mostly in Florida, has wins this year against top-10 players Clijsters, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova. Officials have been pouring money into the sport in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"Since we got Olympic gold medal, everybody, even the government, pays attention," says Li through an interpreter. "There is more support, more sponsors, and more money to travel on tour to play more tournaments."

Though China and Japan are leading the Asian wave, India has a woman making noise this year. Sania Mirza, 18, has risen as high as No.48.

"India," predicts Ma, "is going to be big, too, in the next few years."

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