On a recent
afternoon at Chu Yun Kuan, 40 miles outside of Peking, an 18-year-old from
Englewood, Colo. unlimbered his tennis racket and began swatting balls against
the Great Wall of China. The bounces were pretty erratic and the watching
Chinese tourists were obviously amused, but no more so than John Benson.
"Maybe I'm the first to use the Great Wall of China as a bang-board,"
he said, grinning. "Did Marco Polo ever do that?"
runner-up in the U.S. Junior championships last summer, and his teammates—pros
Stan Smith, Tom Gorman, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Mona Guerrant and collegians
Anne Smith, Larry Gottfried and Sherry Acker—were the first Americans in
decades to play tennis against the Chinese. Before Chairman Mao established the
People's Republic in 1949—and even before Kenny Rosewall's first tournament
victory—the U.S. Davis Cup team of Don Budge, Bitsy Grant and Gene Mako beat
China in the first round at Mexico City in 1935. However, China hasn't competed
in the Davis Cup since 1946, and the only Chinese player of note, Kho Sin Kie,
who won the British Hard Court titles in 1938-39, died in 1947. With Kho's
death, and Mao's rise, the game seemed to have perished on the mainland,
although a couple of Chinese did show up for a cup of tea at Wimbledon in
tennis contingent that arrived in China in October had read about the Great
Wall, the Ming tombs ("This graveyard would make a terrific underground
tennis club," said Gorman, appraising the crypts) and delicacies such as
shark fins, duck brains and sea slugs, which sent them literally sprinting for
a McDonald's in Hong Kong the day the tour concluded. What they didn't expect
to find in China were relatively high-caliber tennis players—especially women.
None of the Americans was prepared for Ch'en Chuan, 19, a nimble six-foot
accountant who appeared to be as powerful as Margaret Court, or quick and
pretty Yu Li-chi'ao, another 19-year-old who works in an electromagnet factory
and won sets from each of the American women except Guerrant.
Yu, who holds the
national women's title, athough she's been at the game only four years, is not
even a household name in Wu Ch'ang, where her parents live. Everybody knows how
good the Chinese are at Ping-Pong, but tennis is about as prevalent in the
People's Republic as the Sayings of Mao are in Orange County. All told, China
has a few hundred courts (perhaps more than 50 of them in the hotbed, Shanghai)
and possibly 10,000 players. Considering the game's ancestry as a diversion for
rich folks, it is perhaps more remarkable that tennis survived the Revolution
and the Cultural Revolution. In pre-Mao days, hundreds of courts, most of them
at private residences and clubs, dotted Shanghai alone, where tennis was
enjoyed by affluent Chinese and foreigners.
Now the courts are
public, of course. The playing fee is 15� a court for four hours. Nevertheless,
tennis remains expensive by Chinese standards. In a country where $30 is a
common monthly wage, a racket costs $8, and balls—surprisingly, good old
colonial white—are $3.50 a can. No problem in selecting equipment: there's only
one racket available, the wooden domestically manufactured Aeroplane, patterned
after the Dunlop Fort, and one brand of balls, also Aeroplane, which
"sometimes go into a tailspin and crash-land," says Gorman.
men, all government officials, have been instrumental in nursing the game
along, and reviving it after the Cultural Revolution, when the national
championships were not held: Mu Tso-yun, 64, an assistant basketball coach at
Springfield (Mass.) College before World War II and head of the Chinese Tennis
Federation since 1953; Mei Fu-chi, director of tennis in Shanghai; and Chu
Cheng-hua, the national coach. Mu, who initiated the invitation for the U.S.
team, says, "We have plans to build more courts and encourage more tennis,
especially among the young, and we invited the Americans to come so we could
learn from them." Jan Carol Berris of New York, a leader of the tour that
was overseen by the National Committee for U.S. China Relations, says, "We
were astounded when the Chinese asked us for a tennis delegation. But we've
learned that this is one of the signs of a general loosening up. Tennis had
been considered bourgeois by some in power."
Mei and Chu, a
couple of portly 49-year-olds who were permitted to enter Wimbledon 18 years
ago, were the best male players produced by the People's Republic. As coaches,
they are responsible for the startlingly good crop of present-day Chinese
Good, of course,
is relative. "There are some prospects here," says Dick Gould, the
Stanford coach in charge of the U.S. men's team. "Particularly those two
girls Yu and Cheng, who could play college tennis at the upper level in the
States. I thought it might be a little embarrassing when I heard we'd be
playing against their national teams, that we might have to pull our
consisted of seven engagements composed of two-set matches in Shanghai, Peking
and Canton. They kept it interesting, and our kids had to hustle. Their top
men, Hsu Mei-lin and Wang Fu-chang, aren't as impressive as the two women,
because they're both over 30 and won't improve much. But the players we saw
volleyed and moved very well and liked to attack. I like that." Coach Chu
does, too. reporting, "Chairman Mao said, 'Attack is the best defense.'
"What I'm not
sure about is how competitive they are," Gould says. "We keep hearing
them say, 'Yu-i-Ti-i, Pi-sai Ti-erh'—friendship first, competition second—and
they seem to genuinely mean it. I'm not putting that down. It's great—but
tennis is a very competitive game if you're going to move up."