REFILE-INTERVIEW-Tennis-Freed foursome blueprint for China sport
* Freeing professionals could become future model in China
* Door "always open" for players to return to state system (refiles, adds bullet points)
By Nick Mulvenney
BEIJING, March 18 (Reuters) - China's decision to free its top tennis players from the state system could provide a blueprint for other sports working in a rapidly changing society, according to a senior tennis official.
The Chinese system enjoyed its greatest triumph when China topped the medals table at last year's Olympics, but retaining tight control over its athletes is likely to become increasingly difficult as constraints are loosened in other areas of life.
The decision to allow Zheng Jie, Li Na, Yan Zi and Peng Shuai to keep 92 percent of their earnings and choose their own coaches was merely a reflection of the new realities, according to the deputy director of the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA).
"So far we are the first to attempt such a change among all the Olympic sports within the General Administration of Sport," Gao Shenyang told Reuters in an interview.
"But I believe with the society and competitive sports developing into a certain stage, similar changes could happen elsewhere."
Before the change, the four women kept only 35 percent of their winnings. In return, the CTA covered all their travel, coaching and equipment expenses.
Zheng, the first Chinese to reach the last four of a grand slam at Wimbledon last year, has won $2,432,018 in her five-year career. Li Na has accumulated $1.5 million in 10 years.
Both are now coached by their husbands and reported spats between the players and the CTA hint that the former may have forced the issue. Gao, though, said it had been a mutual decision.
"Our traditional system could not meet 100 percent of the individual needs of the players," he said. "We needed to work out a solution together."
The CTA support team that used to be considered an advantage of the national system was simply unable to keep up with the progress of top players with differing schedules, Gao said.
"No matter how hard they worked, they were unable to satisfy everyone," he said.
Players being isolated from their families for long periods resulted in tension, and the collective lifestyle of the national training camps sometimes conflicted with personal habits, he added.
Other players who wanted to go it alone would be able to choose to do so, Gao said, and any of the four could return to the state system at any time if they suffered difficulties like serious injury.
"The door is always open," he added.
The CTA is keeping close contact with the four self-managed players and Gao had no doubt they would all do their duty when it came to Fed Cup and the Olympics.
"Whenever and wherever the country wants them, I believe our players will arrange their schedule and play for the motherland."
As for the loss of the income from the prize money, Gao said the CTA itself had only received 30 percent and it did not make up a significant portion of their funding.
"Commercial activities and sponsorship now makes up three-fifths of our income," he said. "Even in the current circumstance of global economic crisis, Chinese tennis can make steady progress in our business development." (Additional reporting by Liu Zhen; Editing by Martin Petty)
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