Over the past few years, eastern Europe has been a veritable hotbed of tennis talent. If it were not for the Williams sisters then the top 10 of the WTA rankings would be almost entirely made up of Serbs and Russians. With Novak Djokovic also turning the two-way battle for supremacy in the men’s game into a genuine three-cornered affair, many column inches have been devoted to the rise of players from Russia and the Balkans.
Those looking for the next big thing, however, would be wise to look even further east. For the past decade, Ai Sugiyama has been almost the sole Asian representative in either the men’s or the ladies’ draws – and with 16 consecutive Wimbledons and 57 Grand Slams in a row, she has certainly been flying the flag.
In recent years, however, she has been joined by a new generation of players from the far east, with Monday’s fourth round matches featuring both Zheng Jie and Tamarine Tanasugarn. Zheng was all set to break into the top 30 at the end of 2006 after winning matches at the French and US Opens.
She also made it to the third round here as well as clinching two Grand Slam doubles titles with Yan Zi. A left ankle injury suffered at Roland Garros in 2007 put a premature end to her season and saw her plummet 130 places in the rankings. She also missed out on this year’s Australian Open. Zheng had to go through qualifying for the French but did so with flying colours and advanced to the third round of the main draw.
This coupled with strong showings at Miami and Indian Wells has catapulted her back up the rankings. Today she went a step further, emulating Na Li who was the first Chinese woman to make it to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
Speaking of Li, she was relatively disappointing here last week, losing in the second round to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but has firmly established herself in the top 30 for two years.
The other Asian in Tuesday's quarter-finals is Tamarine Tanasugarn. The Thai is a veteran player in her 30s who won her first grass court title earlier in June at ‘s-Hertogenbosch beating Dinara Safina in the final. It was her fifth win over a top 10 player – three of which have come on grass. The result catapulted her back into the top 60, and she will be climbing even further on the back of her heroics at Wimbledon, which included her defeat of No. 13 seed Vera Zvonareva in the second round and No.2 seed Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round.
With Tanasugarn’s countryman Paradorn Srichaphan plummeting down the ATP rankings due to a persistent wrist injury, all eyes are now on Kei Nishikori. The 18-year-old Japanese prodigy is part of the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy and was lucky enough to serve as Roger Federer’s hitting partner at Wimbledon last year. He made his ATP debut in Los Angeles later in the season, and began 2008 on the challenger circuit before qualifying for the Delray Beach tournament.
Florian Mayer, Amer Delic, Bobby Reynolds and Sam Querrey were all brushed aside as Nishikori made the final and then upset No.1 seed James Blake in three sets. This made him the first Japanese man in almost 16 years to win an ATP event (his former coach Shuzo Matsuoka defeated Todd Woodbridge in Seoul in April 1992).
The 18-year-old was still flying under the radar until the Artois at Queen’s Club this month, when he took eventual winner and world No. 2 Rafael Nadal to three sets in the third round. Though Wimbledon ended prematurely for him with a second round withdrawal due to an abdominal strain, great things are tipped for Nishikori, who is the youngest player in the top 100 and has recently signed a number of lucrative endorsement deals. When he returns to Wimbledon next year, he is likely to have an even bigger reputation – and perhaps by then, east Asia will be the new eastern Europe.