Amanmuradova Tweaks Our Expectations and Yuan Meng Goes It Alone

Akgul Amanmuradova and Yuan Meng surprised all expectations at the WTA event in Carson today.

I’d planned to look at the Chinese players today in wake of the Olympics which start in Beijing the week after next. But first, let’s take a quick detour through Uzbekistan.

I went over the outside courts here in Carson to look at Chinese player Peng Shuai take on Dinara Safina. The box lunches in the media room were disappointing so I was standing in line with twenty other people at a food tent when I looked over to one of the courts and saw Nadia Petrova practicing with what looked like a guy. Then I saw the linespeople on the court and realized I was looking at a match. Petrova’s opponent was very tall and wore an orange and black short sleeved shirt, long black shorts, black tennis shoes with white socks, and a bandanna around her tennis cap – typical attire for an ATP challenger or main draw event but not the usual for a WTA event.

I went over to the court and sat down on the grass with the spectators. After a few points I turned to the guy next to me and asked him, “How tall do you think she is?” He pursed his lips and stayed quiet for a minute then said, disapprovingly, “She looks like a man.” Evidently he wasn’t as entranced by Petrova’s opponent as I was.

Her name is Akgul Amanmuradova and she’s from Uzbekistan. She’s the tallest player on tour at 6′ 3″(1.90 m) and probably the biggest, weighing in at 163 lbs.(74 kg). I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that she turned down an opportunity to play basketball for her country to focus on tennis. She’s number 79 in the rankings but she was up to number 50 a few months ago. She’s reached two semifinals and a quarterfinal and she beat Petrova in Istanbul earlier this year in three sets.

Today she lost to Petrova in three sets and she left the grounds before I could speak to her, but I plan to check up on her periodically because I like someone who tweaks our gender expectations.

Back to that match between Peng Shuai and Dinara Safina. Shuai is the third ranked Chinese player at number 49 and one of two Chinese players in the draw. Shuai hits with a two hander off both sides and covers the court pretty well but she can’t handle Safina’s power. Zhen Jie is the top ranked Chinese player and she did knock off Ana Ivanovic on her way to the semifinals at Wimbledon this year, but China is more likely to win a medal in doubles than singles at the Olympics. Zheng and Yan Zi won two of the four slams in 2006 and Zheng has been ranked as high as number three in doubles.

The other Chinese player in the draw is Yuan Meng and she fared better against Sania Mirza despite the fact that Yuan is ranked number 122 and Mirza is number 35. Mirza had wrist surgery in March and missed almost three months of the tour. By the look of her serve – which had very little snap to it – the wrist is not 100% yet and she lost the match in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3.

I was the only English speaking writer to interview Yuan and I was all ready with a ton of questions about her childhood because I figured she was like most athletes in China. In other words, she’d been scooped up by the Chinese government’s sports program at an early age, sent to a national training center and sequestered there with infrequent visits to her one-child-only family until she learned the game of tennis professionally. At that point she was allowed to travel the world and play professional tennis accompanied by a tight coterie of Chinese tennis association officials who also took 65% or so of her tennis winnings – a situation reminiscent of Russian tennis players during Russia’s communist era. What I encountered was something closer to the Williams family story.

Yuan never went to a national training center and she is not part of the Chinese Tennis Federation. And her coach, Yu Fung Ming, had never played tennis before becoming a tennis coach! So that’s what I mean by the Williams sisters. Richard Williams loaded up a pirated shopping cart with tennis balls and took his daughters Venus and Serena out to the courts in Compton just south of Los Angeles to learn the game of tennis. And he steered his daughters on their own unique path to the tour, skipping junior events and generally going their own way.

Yuan is the only Chinese professional tennis player who does not work with the Chinese Tennis Federation and that’s pretty incredible if you think about it because the country has a huge and comprehensive network of training centers for every Olympic sport. As you can also imagine, it makes life much harder for her. She doesn’t have to deal with the racism the Williams sisters faced, she has to deal with being a tennis player among thousands of other tennis players without a tennis community. For instance, since every other tennis player works with the Federation, it’s hard for her to find hitting partners when she is home in China. It’s also hard on her coach:

My coach’s job is very tough because she has to do everything. She is my trainer and my coach and she doesn’t have any help from the government or the Federation.

Yuan is ranked number 122 at the moment and that makes her the fifth ranked player in China, so she misses getting on the Chinese Olympic team by one position since only four women can go. If she does make it onto the team for the next Olympics, that will be all the more impressive for the road she took to get there.