July 24, 2014

Asia Rising

For occupying almost a third of the world's land mass, Asia doesn't get a lot of love from the tennis world.

The Australian Open, technically on a whole different continent, is referred to as the Asian Slam, the first Chinese woman cracked the top ten barely four years ago, and just in May Kei Nishikori became the only man from Japan ranked in single digits.

But a relatively new series of WTA tournaments showcases the region and its players, many of whom don't qualify for main draws at Tour-level events and spend most of their time on the ITF circuit. This week in Nanchang, the first stop on this year's WTA 125K schedule, only one player is ranked in the top fifty and the eight seeds were rounded out by world #168 Yuliya Beygelzimer. And when you look at the slate of athletes still standing, you may notice something more than how few names you recognize -- every single one of the quarterfinalists hails from Asia itself, and any of them has an opportunity to put their continent on the map in a very big way.

Of course the seeds probably have the best shot at making at statement. Shuai Peng, well off her career high ranking of #14 in the world, opened the year with a run to the Shenzhen final and beat Maria Kirilenko to make the fourth round at Wimbledon, matching her best performance at a Major. And Misaki Doi may have added only one ITF title to her mantel in 2014, but she's quietly become the #2 ranked player in Japan and could parlay a nice run here into greater success on the WTA down the road.

But keep an eye out for even lesser known players in Nanchang too. Fangzhou Liu was up a set and a break on two-time Slam semifinalist Jie Zheng when her opponent retired, but backed up the free pass with a straight set win over Slovenia's Nastja Kolar a round later. And Thailand's Luksika Kumkhum was ranked just inside the top hundred when she pulled off the upset of her career this past January -- playing in just her second Australian Open, she took out sixth seed Petra Kvitova in her opening round. She hasn't matched the glory of that win yet this year, but the fourth seed this week might just be the most likely dark horse in the field.

Only one of the previous six WTA 125K events was won by an Asian -- Shuai Zhang took the title in Nanjing last October -- but this week we're guaranteed to add another to the list. Of course, it's not like any of these ladies would be the first from Asia to take home a WTA title, but success here could open the doors for them on much bigger stages. And in a truly global sport like tennis, we're all better served by sharing the love.

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