Thu, Jan 15, 2009 - Page 18 News List

Zheng, Nishikori carry Asian hopes


Zheng Jie of China returns the ball during her match against Michelle Larcher de Brito of Portugal at the JB Group Classic in Hong Kong on Saturday.


Asia has slim pickings at the Australian Open with many players failing to make progress last year, but hope remains for regional success with Zheng Jie and Kei Nishikori at the forefront.

Going into the tournament, eight Asian women are ranked within the top 100, the same as this time last year. China’s Zheng is the highest placed at 24, four ahead of compatriot Li Na.

Remarkably, veterans Ai Sugiyama of Japan (ranked 29) and Thai trailblazer Tamarine Tanasugarn (35) remain top-50 players, although they will be the first to admit that they are past their prime.

Others making the grade include Taiwan’s Chan Yung-jan (75) and Hsieh Su-wei (80), China’s Peng Shuai (39) and Japan’s Ayumi Morita (76).

But players like China’s Yan Zi and Japan’s Akiko Morigami and Aiko Nakamura have all slipped off the radar.

Another high-profile casualty is India’s Sania Mirza, who was ranked 31 ahead of the Australian Open last year but is now languishing at 107 after wrist surgery.

Asian men’s tennis remains in dire straits with just two players inside the top 100, but that includes Japan’s Nishikori who burst onto the scene last year and has stormed up the rankings to 61 — two places ahead of Taiwan’s Lu-Yen hsun.

Chinese star Zheng, who has won three tour singles titles and 11 doubles titles plans to concentrate more on singles this year and had been working hard on her fitness.

“The most important thing I feel is I need more fitness because the Asia players, we are so small. I need to get stronger and more powerful so I am working so hard on my fitness,” she said.

Li, who has yet to go beyond the fourth round in Melbourne in four attempts, will be hoping to do better, although a cloud hangs over her participation after she pulled out of this month’s Brisbane International injured.

India’s Mirza, 22, has been built up as a star of the future but questions remain over her abilities on the big stage, where she has failed to go beyond her fourth round appearance at the US Open in 2005.

A youth icon in India, she had a 2008 to forget with surgery on her right wrist in April ruining her season. She made brief comebacks before bowing out of the Beijing Olympics in tears. But she is now hitting the ball harder than ever and hungry for success.

“The most important thing is I am back and so is my confidence,” she said. “I can say that I am in the best frame of mind for the big league again. This is the beginning of a new chapter in my career.”

Asian men’s tennis has been in the doldrums for years but in Nishikori there is hope that a player has finally emerged who can make waves.

The 19-year-old caused a sensation by capturing his first ATP title at Delray Beach last February in only his fifth tournament since turning professional.

His US Open performance, where he reached the fourth round put him in the world spotlight and he wants to build on that this year.

“I hope I will be able to do better than last year,” he said. “I reached the fourth round at the US Open, so my goal at the Australian Open is to finish higher.”

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