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Xu Shilin of China plays a backhand in her second-round match against Alexandra Kiick of the US on Monday. Xu was defeated 3-6, 6-4, 6-4. Robert Prezioso / Getty Images
Chinese teenager has tried to emulate Sharapova from earliest days of career
It was a sunny afternoon in early 2007 when the skinny girl from Guangdong province first spotted Maria Sharapova at the renowned Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.
While the Russian star, who had just claimed her second Grand Slam title in New York, was honing her serves, then 9-year-old Xu Shilin was practicing at a nearby court and couldn't help but admire her idol's powerful but elegant style.
"It was incredible to be able to watch her practicing at such a close distance," Xu told China Daily after bowing out in the second round of the Australian Open girls' singles on Monday.
"She was my favorite player growing up and I just couldn't believe I would be able to see her in action so close. I was really so happy," Xu, the current girls' world No 48, recalled of the encounter.
"That was just the beginning of an eye-opening journey for me."
That glance of Sharapova has driven Xu and her family along a path not dissimilar to the Russian's.
Introduced to the game at the age of 4 by her father, Xu Yang, who runs a tennis academy in Zhongshan, Guangdong, Xu's potential was evident at an early age as she claimed multiple national junior titles before moving to the US with her parents in 2006.
After a sojourn at the Bollettieri academy, the tennis nursery that has produced stars like Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Sharapova, Xu settled down at the International Tennis Academy in 2009, accompanied by her parents, and started to build her junior ranking with solid results at USTA events and on the ITF Circuit.
"(Overseas training) won't work out for everybody, but it's what my parents picked for me because they believed I had the talent (to become a star) when I was very young," said Xu, who now speaks English more fluently than Mandarin.
By earning a full scholarship worth about $80,000 from the ITA for two years, Xu has already eased some of the financial burden on her family and her sights are set high.
"I have started to trust myself after getting used to life and training at the ITA and I will never give up the dream of becoming the world No 1 one day."
Still, reality suggests Xu has a long way to go to catch up to her favorite player.
Sharapova debuted on the WTA Tour at 15 following two final berths at Grand Slam junior events (the Australian Open and Wimbledon) in 2002, while Xu is still struggling on the ITF junior circuit at the same age.
Xu, who was defeated by US teen Alexandra Kiick, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, in the second round, lost her composure in some of the tougher rallies.
"She is still far from an established player and the immaturity is a big issue in her game," said Des Tyson, the Australian national junior coach, who watched Xu's loss at courtside.
Tyson, who also served as an assistant coach in China's junior camp in 2003, said overseas training was not necessary for every promising young player in China.
"I think it's becoming closer," he said. "Perhaps the Chinese method was more localized because they didn't have the chance to study what was happening abroad years ago. Now, I've seen more modern teaching (in China). Combining the traditional Chinese ethic of hard work with modern techniques is the way forward for Chinese tennis."
Although Xu still needs a lot more work on her game, she, like Sharapova, who was signed by IMG in 1995, has been identified as a marketable commodity at an early age.
Terry Rhoads, CEO of Shanghai-based Zou Sports Marketing, signed Xu after watching her at the 2011 Orange Bowl - the ITF junior international championships.
Rhoads, who was behind hoops icon Yao Ming's first endorsement with Nike, said he sees "huge" marketing value in Xu, assuming she develops properly.
Lured by commercial opportunities and more ITF senior events, Xu returned to China in October at the suggestion of Rhoads.
"My agent said there will be more sponsors interested in me in China and I can play in higher level events, which offer more ranking points. So my family thought it would be the right move," Xu said.
(China Daily 01/24/2013 page23)