Asian men struggle to break through at 'home' slam
Melbourne: Nishi! Kori! Nishi! Kori! Nishi! Kori! chants echoed around Melbourne Park on Saturday as a small but noisy group of Japanese bathed in the reflected glory of Kei Nishikori`s Australian Open third round victory.
It was a rare scene because although the year`s first major has been branded "The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific" for more than a decade, success for Asian men has been conspicuous by its absence.
This year, however, there have been signs of improvement and Nishikori`s win over France`s Julien Benneteau made him just the second, after Thai Paradorn Srichaphan, to reach the fourth round in Melbourne since tennis went professional in 1968.
The Japanese prospect did not need to wait too long for regional company in the last 16 when Kazakhstan`s Mikhail Kukushkin followed him soon after with an upset of France`s Gael Monfils to book a fourth round tie with fourth seed Andy Murray.
Off court, organisers have embarked on an aggressive commercial push into the most populous continent with increased broadcast agreements, new retail merchandising and distribution deals in place.
Ticket sales from China were up 30 percent this year, while 16 percent of international visitors to the tournament were from the Asia-Pacific last year as compared to seven percent in 2004.
Li Na`s run to the Australian Open women`s final last year also increased television viewership in China from 59 million in 2010 to 135 million in 2011.
The commercial side of the tournament may be going from strength to strength in Asia, the sport, particularly on the men`s side, has failed to show similar growth.
Of the top-100 men`s players, only six come from Asia. Nishikori is the highest at 26th and no Asian man has won a grand slam singles title, though 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang, was Chinese-American.
Paradorn reached the world`s top 10 in 2003 but none have flirted with the mark since, though Nishikori is hoping to crack that elite status soon.
One of the perceived challenges for Asian men was graphically illustrated on Friday when the 1.98-metres (6ft-6in) Juan Del Potro shook hands with Lu Yen-hsun after he beat the world number 79 in the third round.
Taiwanese Lu, at 1.80-metres (5ft-11in) tall, was a head shorter than the broad-shouldered Argentine and nine kilograms lighter.
Lu`s impressive court speed and hustling mentality, reminiscent of Chang, kept him in the contest at times but the power and spin generated by Del Potro`s massive levers ultimately overpowered him.
The top Asian women, Lu said, were similar in size and strength to the majority of the players on the WTA Tour and could also practice with men to get used to the power games of players like Serena Williams.
"Physically the men`s game is tougher and stronger," he said.
"And in Asia from the tennis side, we are always one step behind but in the last few years we have stepped up and got better and better."
Lu also hinted at another reason why Asian men have been so few and far between at the top of tennis, namely that sport is not considered a profession in East Asia and if someone is to embark on a sports career, tennis is not the first cab off the rank.
"The older generation, expect their kids to go to school and study and get a good job like doctor, or lawyer to make money. It`s a tradition. It`s a cultural thing," Lu said.
"(People) choose the safest way to build a future.
"But in the last 20 years it has changed. We have good athletes coming up. It is a good sign and it shows that study is not the only option... but you need time to show the results."
Although the International Tennis Federation (ITF) spend millions each year on player development around the world, Nishikori left Japan at 13 to train at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida in order to get a more structured development and higher pressure competition at an early age.
Indian doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi also went to university in America because he felt he needed the structure to prepare himself for professional tennis.
Bhupathi, who has won four grand slam titles, said there was not a "conveyer belt of talent" in his country or the region and Asian countries needed to put more money into development.
"The only way to build champions is to have a system in place. I think it boils down to having a system in your country," the 37-year-old told Reuters.
"China has a system and now they`re getting results in women`s tennis they`re pouring money into that and the success is enabling them to build a men`s system as well.
"If you don`t have a system in your country, you`re not going to have the factory of champions. Asia has never had that."
Bhupathi feels more needed to be done to develop talent rather than relying on luck and the DNA lottery.
"Australia was struggling two years ago and now they have (Bernard) Tomic coming through. India was struggling and now we have Som Devvarman (world number 86) coming through. Someone always comes through," he added.
"I would like that to change. Instead of us waiting for someone to come through, I`d like us to be like Spain, Germany and France where we have got depth.
"But it costs money to build a tennis player and if the (national) federation is not doing it then some private sponsors need to do that. It`s a big process. You can`t expect raw talent to be born, everyone has to go through the process and that takes money."