She came to play her first professional tournament, but she might as well have been a visiting dignitary. After a 45-minute practice session, Hu Na, 20, the top-ranked female Chinese tennis player who defected to the United States last summer, appeared at a press conference and said, slowly but clearly, "It's great to be with you today."
With that flourish complete, her coach, Bob Huang, took over as interpreter and reminded the media that Hu was here by invitation of the Westwood Racquet Club to play in the fourth annual Michelob/Michelob Light women's satellite tournament, and questions should be limited to tennis, not politics.
Hu, wearing a light blue warmup suit, her black hair tied in a tight ponytail, described in generalities her life since her defection and when she was granted asylum on April 5.
"I have enjoyed living here. Every day I am on the courts practicing. I am getting more comfortable," she said, smiling.
She had been practicing at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida, until she hurt her ankle recently and went to Chicago for treatment. "Her training has been cut shorter because of the injury," Huang said.
Hu is an amateur who was invited to this tournament as a wild-card entry. She will play seventh-seeded Claudia Hernandez of Mexico in a first-round match Monday night.
Her practice partner yesterday, Mary Dailey, a local player, was impressed with Hu's ground strokes and volleys.
"She also runs pretty well," said Dailey. "I don't know how good she is; we'll have to see the match. There's lots of pressure on her with all the political stuff and press here. I feel for her."
Hu has had to cope with personal problems as well as political pressure. "Yes, I'm concerned about my family," she said. "I hope they will lead a happy life.
"I would like to stay very much," Hu said. "In the future, I would like to visit China."
Last July 23 Hu defected in Santa Clara, Calif., where she was playing in the 20th annual Federation Cup matches. She defected because she said she was constantly asked to join the Communist Party, which she refused to do.
The Chinese government reacted to Hu's being granted asylum by severing all sports and official cultural exchanges with the United States until the end of the year.
Starting today, her future is Erie, Pa., and her first professional tennis tournament. She says she feels "very obliged to have the opportunity to participate."
Hu was the No. 1-ranked player in China in 1981 and 1982. She grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in south central China, and has played tennis since she was 8 years old, learning from her grandfather, Wen Lin.
All the media attention, especially the glare of the television lights, seemed to make her nervous, but she kept her composure throughout the press conference and spoke English one other time.
When a reporter asked her if she hoped to play at Wimbledon some day, Hu responded: "What do you think?"