It wasn’t strange that Citi Open opponents Zarina Diyas and Kurumi Nara were wearing the same outfits in their match Wednesday afternoon. That’s not an uncommon occurrence on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour.
But instead of a swoosh or three stripes or even the double-diamond of European favorite Lotto, there was an unfamiliar logo on the women’s black skirts and yellow tops: an underlined S of the tennis company Srixon, which sponsors mostly Asian players such as Kazakhstan’s Diyas and Japan’s Nara.
All-Asian matchups are happening with growing regularity. In the footsteps of ground-breaking Grand Slam champion Li Na, Asian players such as Diyas and Nara continue to climb the singles rankings as the WTA pushes into the Asian market.
Earlier this year, the WTA announced it will hold its championships in an Asian-Pacific country for the first time in the 44-year history of the event. For the next five years, the tour will play its late October finals in Singapore.
When Li won the 2011 French Open to become the first Asian Grand Slam champion, she lifted the sport to a new level of prominence in her native China. Time featured her on the cover of its 2013 100 Most Influential People in the World issue, and Nike confirmed the honor when it named its Chinese headquarters after her last week.
“I really respect Li Na,” Nara said after her match Wednesday. “She’s a great player. I hope more Asian players get into the top 10.”
Three years after that win at Roland Garros, Li, who also won this year’s Australian Open, is still the only Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title. But with breakout seasons, players such as Diyas, 20, and Nara, 22, are threatening to join her.
Diyas made an unexpected run to the round of 16 at Wimbledon earlier this month, a career-best Grand Slam result that came after a trip to the round of 32 in the Australian Open. The right-hander first gained interest in tennis as a child when she saw Martina Hingis play on television. She opts to train in Guangzhou, China, where there are “good conditions” and “good physios” at coach Alan Ma’s training facility.
Of Diyas’s three finals appearances this season, two came at East Asian venues: one in Guangzhou and the other in Hong Kong. Not even a decade ago, opportunities to play on her home continent would have been much harder to come by.
In 2005, the WTA held nine events in Asian countries. Asia will host eight WTA events in September alone and 23 overall this season.
Nara reached a career-high ranking of No. 38 earlier this month and likely will jump even further thanks to wins over No. 27 Madison Keys and Diyas so far at the Citi Open. Just behind Nara in the rankings is China’s Shuai Peng, the only other Asian player Nara can remember playing on tour besides Diyas. Shuai and her partner, Su-Wei Hsieh from Chinese Taipei, are the third- and fourth-ranked doubles players in the world, respectively.
Nara’s countrywomen Shuko Aoyama, a two-time defending doubles champion at the Citi Open, said more children play tennis in Japan than when she was young.
As she spoke after her quarterfinal win Wednesday, the highest-ranked male from an Asian country, Kei Nishikori, walked by and offered his congratulations. Nishikori, 24, is Japan’s most prominent tennis star, the only Japanese player ever to be ranked in the ATP top 10.
Nearly as influential on the women’s side is Kimiko Date-Krumm, who reached a WTA ranking of No. 4 in the early 1990s before retiring in 1996 at the age of 26. She returned to the WTA in 2008, became the second-oldest player to win a tour event in 2009 and is still in the top 100, ranked 88th at age 43.
“She has helped Japanese tennis a lot,” Aoyama said. “We all want to fight like Kimiko.”
The number of Asian tennis role models has grown since Date-Krumm ruled with Ai Sugiyama in the late 1990s, though not by much. Date-Krumm, Li and Sugiyama remain the only Asian women to reach the WTA singles top 10.
Diyas and Nara may not ascend to the status of those legends by the time the WTA’s deal with Singapore ends. But given the growth of the game’s profile on their home continent and the WTA’s focus on elevating it even further, it’s likely future matchups between Asian players — if not identically dressed up-and-comers — won’t seem so novel.