Arrival announced in Shenzhen
Playing in your first major international tournament is for many a daunting task; some are in awe of the elite players competing in the same arena. However, for one young lady, 15 years ago this week, there were no such qualms.
At the Volkswagen Open China in Shenzhen staged from Thursday 15th to Sunday 18th September 2005, from the very first point, China’s Ding Ning displayed she was very much at home on the big stage.
Only 15 years old at the time, she gave a performance that clearly suggested she was not overawed by the occasion and she had one definite goal in mind, winning.
Talent alone does mean that you will become a high class sporting personality, you need strength of character, you need to be able to cope with pressure and if you represent China then you are immediately under pressure. You are expected to win!
Ding Ning clearly showed that she had the talent, the determination, the athleticism and the strength of character to play and succeed at the very highest levels.
Unseeded, she had to play in the group stage of the women' s singles event and faced two rather more experienced opponents, Japan's Ayumi Etsusaki and Korea's lightning fast penholder, Lee Eunhee. She overcame both opponents; against the former, recovering from a three games to two deficit to secure victory.
A place in the main draw secured she faced North Korea's Kim Hyang Mi, silver medallist in the women' s singles event at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004; Kim Hyang Mi was particularly strong from the backhand, using medium length pimples, a surface which surely would cause the teenager a host of problems.
In the first game Kim Hyang Mi did cause problems and duly made the better start but in the next four games it was a different story. Ding Ning followed the coach, Qiao Hong's advice to the full; left handed she attacked early in the rally strongly into the forehand of Kim Hyang Mi, she was positive, forced errors, caused weak returns, grew in confidence and duly progressed to the second round.
It was at this stage that the end of the road came for Ding Ning. The service employed regularly by Ding Ning was to serve as though with the forehand, bending the knees to an angle of 90 degrees at impact, throwing the racket at the ball in 1970s style like a tomahawk.
However, the difference was that three decades ago players like Dragutin Surbek, who often used this style of service, would hit the ball with the forehand side of the racket, Ding Ning made contact predominantly with the ball on the backhand side of the racket. It was a style also used by colleague Niu Jianfeng and in particular by Japanese players Keiko Okazaki and the young cadet Kenta Matsudaira.
However, against Kim Hyang Mi, this serving technique had to be put on hold and against Croatia’s Tamara Boros it wasn't a match winner; the problem for Ding Ning was that she couldn't keep the service sufficiently short, it drifted long, Boros could attack and that was the end of the story.
Nevertheless it was an impressive debut by Ding Ning who had no doubt benefitted greatly from the experience; she had played four players all with different styles and had beaten three of them.
Watching her play in a well disciplined and mature fashion, you had to remind yourself that she was only in her mid-teenage years; in Shenzhen she fought, she fought for every point and she appeared well aware of what was required to graduate into a top class player.
Moreover, she displayed the fact that she had the potential not only to succeed at the highest level but to be an ambassador for the sport; she achieved both goals.