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Struggling Team Down and Out in Paris
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With injuries and early exits resulting in a disappointing French Open performance, China's national team head coach Jiang Hongwei has warned the players must snap out of their funk if they want to keep the Olympic dream alive.

"If we cannot overcome the current bottleneck on the tour, we will have problems preparing for the Beijing Olympics," Jiang told Xinhua News Agency after none of the players made it past the third round. "Our women's players haven't make any major improvement this year and I haven't seen the breakthrough that I expected at the beginning of year."

Despite entering the tournament with high expectations, Chinese players didn't show the form that thrust them into center stage last year. Sixteenth seed Li Na matched her personal best on clay with a third round loss to Sybille Bammer of Austria while Zheng Jie, who made it into the fourth round in 2004, stumbled in the first round to Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland.

The bad run continued when doubles hotshots Zheng and Yan Zi lost to Spanish pair Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the first round.

Injuries didn't help matters, as Zheng's painful left ankle almost made her withdraw from the doubles just like Peng Shuai, the original 30th seed, who pulled out of the tournament with a similar ankle injury that she suffered at the Berlin Open three weeks ago.

Jiang, however, said injury is not the only reason for the setback.

"It is partly due to the injuries, but I think it is more of a mental problem as their desire is not as great as last year. Women's doubles should be our advantage on the Tour, but now our edge has almost disappeared," he said. "The team is a bit low right now, they need some encouragement and to get back the determination they had.

"We did make some improvements in technique but we also want to strengthen the mental things. There is still a gap mentally with the foreign players."

Coming into the French Open with two first round exits on the clay, Zheng intended to quit the tournament after the singles loss but was reportedly forced to play doubles by Jiang. Media reported the team would not let players rest as the Olympic Rankings Points takes effect on June 9, something that was denied by Chinese tennis officials.

"We didn't force anybody," said Xie Miqing, spokeswoman of China's Administrative Center of Tennis. "Her injury was not too bad to miss the doubles. It's an old injury and doctors said she doesn't need surgery, so we will rest her for a few days.

"We will later decide whether to bring her to London for Wimbledon later this month."

Last year was the career's best for many of the players as they climbed up the rankings and won Grand Slam titles. But this year has been a let-down, with injuries and a general loss of form striking the camp.

Jiang admitted injury is becoming a thorny problem for his squad.

"This is the first time we've met with such problems and we are talking with experts about solutions," he said. "China is still a pro tour rookie and it joined the WTA just four years ago.

"This is obviously urgent as we don't have too much time before the Olympics."

Zheng and Yan, the winners of the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles last year, have had some modest performances after a stellar 2006 season, winning only the Family Circle Cup in Charleston. They have lost to Taipei rivals Chan Yung-jan and Chuang Chia-jung three consecutive times and slipped to No 6 and 7 from 3 and 4 in the Doubles Rankings.

The 21-year-old Peng, who has bounced back after a disappointing 2006 following the appointment of Michael Chang as her new coach, is likely to miss the whole clay and grass season due to the left ankle injury.

It will also affect her new doubles partner Sun Tiantian, one half of the gold medal-winning pair at the Athens Olympics.

Chinese squad is now in England for their first grass tournament this season in Birmingham, which takes place on June 11.

(China Daily June 6, 2007)

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