Peng Shuai (left) and Nuria Llagostera Vives are expected to be the No 1 singles players in the Fed Cup tie between China and Spain that takes place on Saturday. AFP
China's women's tennis is on the brink of a historic breakthrough as the team has a chance to enter the Fed Cup final for the first time in its 100-year tennis history.
Spearheaded by World No 68 Peng Shuai, China's women players are scrambling for the precious berth against Spain this weekend at the Beijing International Tennis Center.
Here, China enjoys a three-tie winning streak and its last loss at the venue was six years ago against Russia in its first world group playoffs.
Buoyed by huge home support, China fought back from 2-0 down to beat powerhouse France 3-2 at the same venue in the quarterfinals, while Spain ousted Italy 3-2 to book its tie in the capital city.
"This is a great chance for Chinese players," head coach Jiang Hongwei said. "We will try to win this showdown against Spain. A victory would be a shot in the arm for us with only four months to the Beijing Olympics."
The teams have clashed just once before in the event's 45-year history, when China saw off Beatriz Pellon-Fernandes' Spain 2-1, in 1984.
Despite being without the country's No 1 singles player, Li Na, who had knee surgery in Germany last week, China will be hoping to repeat the scenario.
The 22-year-old Peng, Sun Tiantian, Grand Slam champions Zheng Jie and Yan Zi are on China's roster, while Spain has to play without its top players, world No 34 Anabel Medina Garrigues and No 74 Virginia Ruano Pascual.
Five-time champion Spain has to rely on world No 76 Nuria Llagostera Vives, Carla Suarez Navarro, at 125, Arantxa Parra Santonja and Maria Jose Martinez, both ranked outside the top 150.
Jiang believes home court advantage will be key but insists both teams have an equal chance to win the tie.
"Playing on this court over the past years has been an incredible environment. We hope for the same kind of support this time," he said. "It will be a huge tie against the best team in the world, in a packed stadium.
"But I don't think we are favorites. Spain has won the overall title five times and there is a lot of depth in its line-up, though you don't see any top-ranked player this time."
Zheng echoed Jiang's point of view, saying there won't be any easy matches.
"The final berth will be lucrative for us, I am very motivated. We came back to Beijing to prepare for it right after the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami last month. I know everyone in China will sit up and watch our matches, so I am really serious and motivated ahead of it."
Expectations are high after Li Ting and Sun won China's first tennis gold medal at the Athens Games in 2004, and supporters will be hoping for a repeat of that feat.
China's sports authority has announced the country's goal at the Games of winning medals in both singles and doubles events.
China's players have been doing well - Zheng and Yan pocketed the Australian and Wimbledon doubles titles in 2006, while Li Na rocketed to No 16 on the rankings last year. But the team has struggled recently due to injuries, as Li Na was sidelined for six months last year with a rib injury and she is out again now with the knee problem.
Zheng is no better. After coming back from an ankle injury that led to a five-month layoff, the 26-year-old from Sichuan has yet to find her "A" game and has failed to win a title with Yan since coming back in January. The duo has fallen to 23 and 25 in the doubles rankings from their best of 3 and 4 last year.
Jiang is hoping the tie against Spain will be a turning point.
"I tell my ladies to calm down and try to focus on the ball they play. We are actually in a tough situation because they haven't won big games for some time and we have injuries here and there," Jiang said.
"But we are still confident about the Beijing Games and I believe my players have what it takes to shine at major tournaments like the Olympics. They are working very hard to overcome some small problems that slow them down a bit."
Spain, however, is not ready to be just a training partner for China after flying more than 5,000 km to Beijing.
"We are not here to lose," Spain's captain Miguel Margets said through an interpreter. "China is a very strong team and I know it wants a victory badly because of the Olympics in August.
"We have great players as well. They have played at elite WTA tournaments for years, so we will try to cause an upset."
Spain has never dropped outside the world group, but all of its memorable moments came in the 1990's, including three titles in a row from 1993-95.
However, Margets believes the current team is strong enough to be a force in the world.
"I don't think we are short of talented players," he said. "You cannot compare my Davis Cup team players with Rafael Nadal, he is the flagbearer of Spanish tennis for sure, but there are a lot of potential winners in my side.
"We are already in the semifinals, so we are definitely a great team."
(China Daily April 25, 2008)