The quick-witted Li, who retired in 2014, had after all won two majors and climbed to No. 2 in the world, while Chinese women had also been victorious in doubles at Olympic and grand slam level. No Chinese man, meanwhile, has ever been ranked inside the Top 100.
But all of that may be about to change with the emergence of 18-year-old Wu Yibing, one of the country’s most exciting prospects, who won both the junior singles and doubles titles at the US Open in September.
“When I was playing, they always asked: where are the Chinese men?,” Li said at last month’s Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open in her hometown of Wuhan in central China.
“But now more young players are coming up, so maybe in the next couple years we can see more men’s players in the grandstand,” said Li, adding she had watched Wu’s victory on television.
The six-foot (1.83m) tall Wu was born in the city of Hangzhou, a few hours south of Shanghai. The son of a boxer, he started playing tennis when he was six years old in order to lose weight, according to the website of the men’s tour.
After becoming the first Chinese player to win a junior US Open title, Wu announced his next goal would be to break into the Top 100.
“This is showing ourselves, and showing the world, Chinese boys can be better and can be good,” Wu said in New York.
Wu, who modelled his game on that of two-time Wimbledon winner Andy Murray, joined the Beijing-based academy of Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of Li and former top-ranked Belgian Justine Henin, when he was 12.
Now guided by Spanish coach Nahum Garcia Sanchez, Wu trains in China and Marbella, Spain.
“He’s very good, a lot of talent, moves well and has a great backhand,” former Australian grand slam doubles champion Peter McNamara said in Wuhan.
McNamara is a former coach of the men’s and women’s teams of the Chinese Tennis Association and saw Wu play in the country’s National Games.
“He doesn’t serve as big as he probably could but he looks like he’s got something a little bit different to the last generation,” said McNamara, who currently coaches Top 50 women’s player Qiang Wang, also from China.
“I think he’s got a big chance. Anyone who wins the US Open juniors obviously if you go back over the years, they’ve all performed pretty well after that,” he said.
Wu, the world No. 1 junior player who turned 18 this month, is now entering a crucial phase in his career.
“It’s whether they can take the next step,” McNamara said. “He needs to be thrown into the deep end now at 18 and play against the men. It’s not easy but they have to.”
When asked why Chinese women have consistently outperformed the men, McNamara said: “Attitude and culture.”
“Boys get it fairly easy and girls don’t in China,” he said. “They fight very hard, the girls, you can see their mentality on the court, their character and intensity and determination to prove themselves as a tennis player.”
“The boys unfortunately don’t have a role model, which they need,” said McNamara, adding Wu’s rise may inspire other boys.
Wu has passed his first test with flying colors, clinching his first ATP Challenger title on the men’s lower-tier tour on home soil in Shanghai a week after his triumph at Flushing Meadows. He’s now ranked inside the Top 350.
Although Wu is on the right track, it’s important he stays grounded, warned Shuo Liu, a former player on the men’s ATP World Tour from China who coaches the country’s second-best woman, Zhang Shuai.
“He is on the correct way for sure because he is coached by a Spanish coach and signed with a foreign agent,” said Shuo.
“They know how to create a champion, how to become a big star. But I think we should just leave this boy very quiet… If the people are always saying ‘very good’ maybe you will lose your spirit.”
Li, who successfully fought the CTA for the right to hire her own coach and keep a larger stake of tournament prize money, has some advice for Wu.
“You have to know what you want,” she said. “Because so many young players, they just follow what the coaches say, what the families say. You need to be yourself.”