China's hunt for the next Li Na

    National treasure Li Na retired from tennis in 2014

    Story highlights

    • Li retired September 2014.
    • State-sponsored system funds tennis boom
    • $225m Wuhan Open facility aims to improve Chinese tennis
    • Zhang reached Australian Open quarterfinal

    Wuhan, China (CNN)Zhang Shuai may be the world No. 38, but as China's top-ranked tennis player she commands more media attention than some grand slam champions.

    Half an hour after losing her first-round match to Britain's Jo Konta at last week's Wuhan Open in the hometown of Asia's first major singles winner, Li Na, about 50 Chinese journalists rushed to the huge main press conference room to grill Zhang about her performance.
      With Li now retired, the hunt is very much on for China's next tennis superstar.
      "Not everyone can be like Li Na," Zhang said in an interview at the Wuhan Open in Hubei province, central China. "If you ask a Swiss, who is the next Roger Federer? No one can tell you who the next Federer is."
      Zhang Shuai in action at the Wuhan Open, where she lost to Britain's Jo Konta.
      Although Chinese authorities have been expanding the game since tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988, Li's victories at the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open not only turned her into a global multi-million dollar brand but also proved to be a game changer for the sport.
      China now has nine women ranked inside the top 200 while 17-year-old Xu Shilin became the country's first junior world No. 1 last year.
      China hosts 12 events on the women's and men's Tours and 40 second-tier tournaments compared to only a handful before Li's breakthrough.
      Cities such as Wuhan, Beijing and Shanghai are fueling the Chinese tennis boom by building state-of-the-art facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
      The Wuhan Open has spent $225 million on its facilities since its inception in 2014. The main stadium court has a retractable roof and is big as Wimbledon's Centre Court with space for 15,000 tennis fans.

      Million dollar question

      "The ambition to find the next Li Na is very big," Jorge Salkeld, senior vice president of the tennis division of Octagon which owns the Wuhan Open, said in an interview at the event.
      Although absent from the Wuhan Open because she is about to give birth to her second child, Li's presence looms large in the city of Wuhan, which has invested $225 million in a 33-acre tennis facility.
      Large advertising billboards promoting the Wuhan Open with Li, a tennis racket flung over her shoulder, are plastered all over this booming city of 10 million. Inside the tennis stadium, large photographs of Li adorn the walls.
      "The next grand slam winner from China, that's the million dollar question," said Salkeld, who spends about five months of the year in China.
      "But they're coming. My prediction is that in five, six, seven years you are going to have 10 girls in the top 100. They are working hard, there is the volume and there is the funds behind it."