Before Li Na, before the No. 1 doubles pair of Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai, before the WTA Finals moved to Singapore, tennis in Asia thrived under the radar.
The sport has more than exploded in the most populous region of the world in the last decade, partly in thanks to the strong following it had in the 1980s and 1990s, an aspect not much discussed as the movement has taken notice around the globe.
But back in 1989, Kimiko Date-Krumm was a pioneer for the continent, the diminutive player from Japan turning pro and five years later becoming the first-ever Asian player to be ranked inside the Top 10.
"It was difficult back then to travel all over the world. I spent a lot of time in airports," said a smiling Date-Krumm, the 43-year-old who returned to tennis in 2008 after a 12-year hiatus. "I turned professional in 1989 and Yayuk Basuki was a well-known Indonesian player. There were no players from China or Thailand or Korea."
If Date-Krumm was the first, there were many to follow. Basuki reached a career-high ranking of No.19, while other players started becoming a part of the fabric of the women's game: Ai Sugiyama (Japan), Tamarine Tanasugarn (Thailand), Shinobu Asagoe (Japan), doubles stars Sun Tiantian and Li Ting (China), Angelique Widjaja (Indonesia) and Sania Mirza (India) were to follow in the next decade.
“At one point there were over 10 Japanese women in the Top 100,” Date Krumm remembers. "But it was harder for Asian players for a while. Now, the level is getting higher, and Li Na has been a leader for us.”
Li has become a global brand. Her triumph at the French Open in 2011 made her the first Asian woman to win a major; then she came through again at the Australian Open earlier this year.
But there were moments before Li that stick out, like Date-Krumm's defeat of Sugiyama in the semifinals of the Japan Open in 1996.
"Kimiko had always been my idol, and playing against her meant a lot,” Sugiyama said in an email. “Since Kimiko was in the Top 10 at the time, the media coverage was more on her than me, so I was just out there to play my game."
Sugiyama reached No. 8 in the world, winning six titles, two of them in Japan (1997 and 1998). Date-Krumm, once ranked as high as No. 4 before leaving the sport for over a decade, has won eight WTA titles, six of them in Asia, including the Tokyo Pan Pacific Open in 1995.
“Nobody thought a Japanese player could win that tournament when I did,” Date-Krumm remembered. “I beat Lindsay Davenport in the final. The support from the fans on site was incredible, so many people and media coming to the site.”
Sun and Lin made history of their own in 2004, winning the gold medal in doubles at the Athens Olympics.
The moments don't stop there. Date-Krumm's win in 1995 was a harbinger for Asian success - in Asia: Basuki won in Pattaya City in 1991 and 1993, while Widjaja did so there in 2002. Guangzhou has had a host of Asian winners (Li in 2004, Yan Zi in 2005, Hsieh in 2012 and Zhang Shuai in 2013). Date-Krumm won in Seoul in 2009, Tanasugarn in Osaka in 2010 and Hsieh in Kuala Lumpur in 2012. Most recently, Li captured Shenzhen in both 2013 and earlier this year.
WTA events like the China Open and the recently added Shenzhen Open, Tianjin Open and Wuhan Open have become mainstays, not to mention stops in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Singapore.
With the star power of Li (and Kei Nishikori in the men’s game), the sport is likely to remain a mainstay in the region, if not become more popular.
"With Li Na winning major events, I feel tennis is getting bigger and bigger, especially in China," Sugiyama noted. "I hope there will be more superstars to come out of Asia to compete around the world. I'm working with top juniors to better their game so that tennis can become bigger in Japan."
Date-Krumm agrees with her countrywoman.
"Li is a great role model," Date-Krumm said. "When children start to play tennis, they look up to her because of her success. We know that we can win Grand Slams, so that's good for us."