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Slam Specialist: Todd Woodbridge on Asia’s fast-growing role in global tennis

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Doubles legend TODD WOODBRIDGE talks about Asia’s rising importance in world tennis and in particular the Australian Open in Melbourne, where Chinese superstar Li Na has reached two of the last three finals of ‘The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific’.

 

By SportAsia

 

Todd Woodbridge is one of the world’s greatest-ever doubles players, the Australian winning 16 Grand Slam men’s doubles titles and seven more Grand Slam crowns in mixed doubles.

 

His 16 Grand Slam men’s doubles wins – including an amazing nine at Wimbledon – put him joint second in the all-time list, just one trophy behind legendary compatriot John Newcombe.

 

After all, before there were the Bryans, there were the ‘The Woodies’. Woodbridge and compatriot Mark Woodforde won 11 Grand Slams spanning from the 1992 Australian Open to the 2000 Wimbledon, before Woodbridge won five more with Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, from the 2001 Australian Open to the 2004 Wimbledon.

 

In total, Woodbridge won a record 83 ATP men’s doubles titles, including gold with Woodforde at the 1996 Olympics, while also competing in 15 Grand Slam mixed doubles finals with eight different partners from 1990 to 2004. He also helped Australia win the Davis Cup in 1999 and 2003.

 

He was also an accomplished singles player, reaching the semi-final of Wimbledon in 1997, losing to Pete Sampras, and winning two of the nine ATP tournament finals he contested.

 

Now 42, Woodbridge remains a popular ambassador for Australian tennis and participated in an Australian Open trophy tour of six cities in Greater China last October, as the year’s first major continued to strengthen its identity as ‘The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific’.

 

The Australian Open’s presence in the region again came to the fore in late November when China No. 1 Wu Di, 22, and 19-year-old compatriot Tang Haochen won the men’s and women’s events respectively at the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff in Shenzhen to earn a place in the main draw in Melbourne.

 

A keen observer of tennis in Asia from his playing days, Woodbridge spoke to SportAsia about how Li Na has been an ‘absolute rocket’ for the sport on the continent, while also paying tribute to his contemporaries including Taiwanese American star Michael Chang and the evergreen Indian Leander Paes.

 

Interview with TODD WOODBRIDGE

 

Todd Woodbridge shows off the Australian Open trophies (also homepage) on a promotional tour of ‘The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific’ around Greater China. Photos: Power of Sport Images.

Todd Woodbridge on an Australian Open trophy tour promoting ‘The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific’ around Greater China. Above and homepage photos: Power of Sport Images.

Why did the Australian Open choose to bill itself as ‘The Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific’?

The important part about it is the viewership that we get up here from television, so we know people are watching it. From that, our objective is to grow the participation in the region and get those people coming down to Australia to watch the tournament and be involved in the tournament.

 

That’s why it’s crucial we have Asians participate at the highest level and that’s the reason we have the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff. Wu Di of China won the men’s for a second time so we’ll see him again in Melbourne.

 

The reason we took the Australian Open trophies around China was to show how important this region is to the growth of the sport. When you think about Li Na and what she has achieved over the last few years, and how much she has helped grow the game in China, we know that the next champions are not far away. They’re knocking on the door.

 

If we talk about the development of Asian players, China and Australia have played twice in Davis Cup in the last three years and when we played them in Beijing [in 2011], they pushed us and we won 3-1, so those guys are getting better.

 

Because of the exposure that we are helping to create, it’s becoming more evident that they are getting better. In some ways, when we play the Davis Cup against them, we don’t want them to be that good! But it’s crucial to growing the sport.

 

Li Na has described the Australian Open as her “favourite” Grand Slam and reached the final in 2011 and last year. Just how important do you think she has been for the profile of tennis in Asia?

From when she had the great run and lost in her first final in the Australian Open and then went on to win the French Open, she changed the sport in this region. She has been an absolute rocket for tennis.

 

I think the most fantastic thing was that although she then had a bit of a slump and wasn’t able to cope with the new expectations, she got over that and got back to another Australian Open final and played some terrific tennis.

 

Li Na’s success on the world stage has inspired a new generation of tennis players and fans on the mainland and around Asia. Photo: Shenzhen Open.

Li Na has inspired a new generation of players and fans on the mainland and around Asia. Photo: Shenzhen Open.

I think it’s hard when you get in those positions as an athlete to realise how important you are to everything else, because you’re focused on yourself. You’re focused on trying to be as good as you can. But I think she realises the potential that she has to make tennis something very special and I think she has done a great job.

 

If she could continue to play at the same level for the next two or three years, that would be even better for everybody.

 

As in golf, Asia’s women have been more successful than the men over the past decade and there are now many women coming through the ranks, especially from China. Why do you think that is?

It’s the exposure that it gets given, so that’s the participation thing, but if it’s on TV and you’ve got a local champion like Li Na, then the young ones start to play.

 

I follow golf a lot and you see that in the men a lot now – from the Koreans winning a PGA event, it’s just opened up a whole new world to people believing that they can do it. I think that’s key.

 

Within tennis, I think the Asian players were previously intimidated by the traditional nations that used to dominate – the Americans, the Australians, the French. That’s starting to change.

 

The countries that weren’t the traditional ‘big guns’ are now starting to come in and take over and there’s going to be that Asian run from the men. We’ve had Paradorn [Srichapan] from Thailand, Shuzo Matsuoka was the first real big Japanese male, now there’s Nishikori and it’s just a matter of time before a Chinese man comes out and does that.

 

You emphasise the importance of role models.

Absolutely and I think that’s what Li Na has brought. I think even the younger boys will be looking at her thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do, that’s who I want to be,’ because they see the opportunity.

 

I think the one thing about tennis is it gives you an amazing lifestyle. You travel the world, you have the opportunity to make a wonderful income if you’re good enough and it opens you up to all these experiences that most people never get.

 

So if you can put your nose to the grindstone and work as hard as you can, it’s an ‘out’ from an average life and there will be a lot of people, particularly in China, that would see that and say, ‘Here’s my chance!’

 

Zhang Shuai, 24, won last year’s Guangzhou Open as she leads the new generation of Chinese tennis stars. Photo: Guangzhou Open.

Zhang Shuai, 24, is among the new generation of Chinese stars. Photo: Guangzhou Open.

Like you’ve said, you have to hit a million-plus balls, right?

You’ve got to hit a million-plus balls, but if they’re willing, there are courts there now and it’s growing and there’s opportunity. There’s enough tournaments now at all levels – Junior, Challenger and Tour events – to be able to keep the sequence in their development. It’s now there.

 

I work in development and the one thing you need is for the athlete to see their next step and there is now a pathway through events in Asia to be able to do that.

 

As a Taiwanese American, Michael Chang was often held up as a role model for Asian tennis, so why have there since been so few Asian men making an impact on the world stage?

I think Chang was an American really. He had more of that philosophy than a real Asian philosophy. Chang lit the flame for tennis in Asia and what he did was amazing. I played against him many times, losing most of the time! He promoted the sport fantastically well, but I think once you get a homegrown champion, it starts to change.

 

I think in the next seven to ten years we’re going to see an influx of Asian men, as I think Li Na’s performances over the last few years have set the next generation going in China. I think once you get one or two happening then there’s more.

 

The one reason that the Asian men were previously not as strong was they were smaller physically, but I’m seeing that the Asian men are now becoming big players. They’re tall players, they’re strong, and once that happens, they can compete, and that’s starting to happen in the men’s tour.

 

Paradorn Srichapan made the world’s top 10 and now Kei Nishikori has taken over the mantle as Asia’s leading male. He’s now 24 so how good do you think Nishikori could become?

He’s already touched the top 10, so I feel that if in the next five years he can continue to slowly improve – it’s not going to be massive jumps, a percentage each year, which is a lot where he’s at – then he potentially has the chance to go to the semis and finals of slams, and once you get into that, anything can happen. He’s already been in the quarters of the Australian Open.

 

I think the intriguing part is that if Roger [Federer] were to retire in the near future, if Rafa [Nadal] also does, depending on what his knees do, you’ve got Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and in another four years, they’re going to start to come off their peak as well.

 

There’s then a massive opportunity for the next generation of younger players to come through and that’s where you look at the likes of Bernard Tomic from Australia, at Nishikori, at Grigor Dimitrov. There’s a group there and if they can work hard as possible in the next couple of years, there’s some huge upshot for those players.

 

How does it make you feel when you watch Leander Paes, a contemporary of yours, win his eighth Grand Slam men’s doubles title at last year’s US Open at the age of 40, having already won six mixed doubles crowns?

Yeah, he makes me want to come back! I love sitting back and watching him play now, as he’s a traditional player and there are not many of those left. By that, I mean he has touch and feel, he’s creative on the court and he’s exciting to watch because of that. And I think because of those skills, he’s been playing well for so long.

 

Indian legend Leander Paes (right) was 40 when he won his eighth Grand Slam men’s doubles title at last year’s US Open, teaming up with Radek Stepanek.

Indian legend Leander Paes (right) was 40 when he won his eighth Grand Slam men’s doubles title at last year’s US Open, teaming up with Radek Stepanek.

Tennis has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. It has become a very physical sport. It has become a lateral sport with big serving and heavy hitting. Because of that, there are players not venturing into parts of the court that they or I used to, in the forecourt playing half-volleys and volleys with a bit more touch and feel.

 

Leander is one of the few players out on the circuit that has that now and for that reason, that’s why he can stay there. I hope we may see a cyclical thing where it comes back into the game.

 

Asian players have had greater success in doubles, with Peng Shuai and Hsieh Su-wei winning Wimbledon last year. You were a doubles specialist, so how can this side of the sport play a role in developing players?

Doubles is a wonderful tool for any young player to build confidence, get going and start to really get their footing into the sport at that pro level.

 

My dad used to say to me that doubles is your bread and butter, and that it’s a way to make a great living out of a career and obviously I did that well. I had aspirations in singles and reached a Wimbledon semi-final (in 1997) and Leander himself was an Olympic medallist in singles (bronze in 1996).

 

Sam Stosur, who’s just finished outside the top 10 and been top 10 for the last three years, she started by winning doubles majors and went on to be World No. 1 in doubles and then went on to win a singles major (2011 US Open). I think there are a lot of coaches out there who don’t realise the potential of coaching their players and getting their players to utilise that part of the sport.

 

Asian tennis was given a huge boost when Singapore won the right to host the WTA Championships for the next five years. How much do you think that will help to raise the profile of tennis on the continent?

I think it’s fantastic that Singapore seems to have wanted to take on the sporting identity of Asia. I think they have set the bar to every other major Asian city to try and say, ‘Well, we’re going to try and take every event’. It’s a bit like what Brazil have done over the last four years.

 

I think for the women’s game, it’s very, very good news. That’s where you have to also hope that the Asian girls perform and can be a part of that, so that’s the next step in that equation.

 

TODD WOODBRIDGE

Sport: Tennis

Country: Australia

Residence: Sydney, Australia

Born: April 2, 1971; Sydney, Australia

Height / weight: 1.77m / 75kg

Selected achievements:

Men’s doubles

Australian Open – winner 1992, 1997, 2001; runner-up 1998

French Open – winner 2000; runner-up 1997

Wimbledon – winner 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004; runner-up 1998

US Open – winner 1995, 1996, 2003; runner-up 1994

Tour Finals – winner 1992, 1996

Olympic Games – winner 1996; runner-up 2000

Mixed doubles

Australian Open – winner 1993; runner-up 1992, 1994, 2000, 2003

French Open – winner 1992, 1995; runner-up 2000

Wimbledon – winner 1994; runner-up 2004

US Open – winner 1990, 1993, 2001; runner-up 1994, 2004

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