Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Two countries, three sports

Three sports: badminton, tennis, table tennis.  Three best known racquet sports with similar origins.  The subjects are how well and popular they are and being developed in different places and why, not about which sport is intrinsically better to justify the big bucks or not because this is largely subjective.

Two countries: China and the US.  To a large extent, also applicable to other countries that are good or poor in these sports.

China is strong in badminton and table tennis since the 1960s, but weak in tennis, recent achievements aside.  US is the opposite.  Why?  To suggest that people from a country or a race can't do well in a sport borders on racism, has no basis in science, ignores history, and have been proven wrong time and time again.

History and tradition certainly plays an important role in how well a sport is taken up by the people, because if you are good today, you are likely good tomorrow.  But it doesn't explain everything.  Until the 1950s, many European countries and the US to a lesser extent were good at badminton and table tennis, with a long list of world champions.  China didn't enter the scene until 1959 with table tennis and didn't compete with the Europeans and Indonesian and Malaysian in badminton until 1980.  Even many years later, the sports still enjoyed very large crowds rarely seen in Europe or the US in 2012.  These two events still fill the stadiums at Olympics among the fastest, just not by the Americans.  The more important question is how do you get back on top?

Professionalization plays a role.  With more money in tennis people in richer countries can afford to train and play for bigger bucks.  But the differences in prizes or interest is not always constant.  The open era of tennis started only in 1968.  Table tennis and badminton leagues have had a long history in Europe and Southeast Asia. 

The deciding factor is how these sports are organized and athletes trained.  The Chinese government invests a lot of resources in table tennis and badminton, due to prior success.  With a large population, coaches who are ex-world champions, and many good training partners, no wonder China's top players are also atop the world.  This kind of positive feedback is well recognized in life. 

Then, why is tennis underdeveloped in China?  China has invested much less in tennis than table tennis, but at least more than a few other countries that are nevertheless much better in tennis.  The reason is that professional tennis is globally organized.  A good player goes to tours and matches all over the world, and he plays and trains with the best all the time, not just with his own countrymen.

Why can't a Chinese do this?  Because to play with the best you need to be at a certain level first.  So in the US you start playing locally with your peers when you are young, and when one of them becomes Pete Sampras, you will be quite good yourself as an adult.  There have never been any internationally good tennis players in China before 2000, so nobody has had a chance, and a positive feedback has never been initiated.  No Sampras' coach either.  It is also more expensive to train and play tennis, and an even bigger investment to send your kids to the US or Europe for tennis schools. 

In the US, it seems that only Asian immigrants play badminton.  Big investments are needed like large indoor courts, and playing badminton is physically demanding and agility testing, so the interest is low.  But table tennis is quite popular, with tables in many households  There are serious local and national leagues in table tennis, assisted by recent Asian immigrants and imported Chinese coaches.

So can China get better with tennis while America (and Europe and others) better with badminton and table tennis?  The answer is yes.  The main reason: the national barrier is artificial. 

1. There is no intrinsic physical difficulty playing any of them for different peoples.  All is needed is investment, coaching, and perhaps a large population for talents.

2. In China, more families will become rich enough to have their children trying out a tennis career.  They can go to Europe or America for training.  If a few Chinese become good and return to China, they can start their own schools to train more Chinese kids closer to home.  A start of a positive feedback loop.

3. American table tennis players are already spending months every year in Europe and China training and competing, which helps their development.

4. These days you have videotapes of every match, so anything a world champion does you can imitate.  In other words, no technique can stay a secret.  In fact, if we discount improvement in equipment, there is little tennis or badminton players nowadays do that their predecessors did not in 1980s.  All the techniques and combinations were already there.  Players of today are better athletes, so with better rackets and strings they serve faster, hitting more winner at the baselines, or jumpsmash winners from the backcourt more easily.  Only table tennis has significant innovations in techniques in the past 30 years.  

5. Chinese investment in badminton and table tennis at the government level is likely going down, relatively speaking, due to a more diversifying interest among the population, which is also aging.  But the Chinese influence will increase the global popularity of badminton and table tennis.

6. There are already promising table tennis players in Europe and the US.  Their success will enhance the sport's image and interest in their home countries.

7. China has had limited success in women's tennis.  If China squeezes further into the tennis world, something that happened to badminton and table tennis 50 years ago could happen in tennis: Western interest in tennis could wane, but compensated by the new-found success in others like table tennis.  

To rise to the top one can be from any country, if the training base is the whole world.  As no technique is off limit to the top players, something extra, however, is required to be the very best.  Case in point: Roger Federer is from a small country and does not look that special physically, yet he is clearly one of the most gifted ever.  

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