Wimbledon star Claire Liu is new champion for Asian-Americans, even if her mother had never heard of All England Club

The girls’ singles winner at SW19 in 2017 triumphs in her first ever main draw match and is already talking about being a role model

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 11:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2018, 11:12pm

Growing up near Shanghai in the 1970s and ’80s, Wen Zhou never saw a tennis court, but she did borrow a racquet from her roommate at Fudan University to hit a ball against a wall. “I never could dream that my daughter would win matches at Wimbledon,” Wen said. “I didn’t even know what Wimbledon was.”

She and her family know a lot about Wimbledon now.

Wen’s daughter, Claire Liu, won her first ever main draw match at Wimbledon on Tuesday, beating Ana Konjuh of Croatia 6-2, 6-7 (7-2), 6-3.

Liu, who turned 18 a month ago, played 11th-seed Angelique Kerber, Wimbledon finalist in 2016, on Thursday. And the teenager showed her credentials by making the German work hard for her 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory.

“Many Asian-Americans are doing really well. I would love to be a role model for anybody, especially Asian-Americans,” Liu told the South China Morning Post.

“The Chinese culture is a big part of me. I hope I can inspire just one person.”

Last year Liu beat Ann Li, another Chinese-American, to win the Wimbledon junior title.

“That was an amazing experience playing on Court One, winning a junior grand slam,” said Liu, who was ranked 237th in the world, with US$137,000 in career earnings, coming into Wimbledon.

“It’s giving me a lot of confidence, preparing me for the pro tour, dealing with my nerves, being able to play good tennis in high pressure situations.”

Liu’s early success on the south London grass comes after long family migrations from China to the United States, and long drives through Los Angeles’ notorious traffic.

Wen, a biologist, and her husband, a chemist raised near Xian, immigrated to the US to raise a family in Thousand Oaks, California. While they both worked, their mothers took turns coming over from China to help raise baby Claire, speaking to her in Mandarin in a household with three generations.

“They would sing me lullabies and take care of me,” said Liu. “It was a really good part of my childhood for sure. I was almost fluent in Chinese when I was a lot younger. Now I’m not even close. Being around them, Chinese was a big part of my language.”

Wen, who began playing tennis for fun in California, said her daughter also played soccer, and took part in track and gymnastics but mainly fell in love with tennis.

“Claire was always very competitive. She’s a fighter. Her passion for tennis comes from inside of her. We didn’t force her to do anything. We encouraged her because she wanted to do that.”

Claire’s mother, father and younger sister came to England to support her as she won three matches to qualify for the Wimbledon main draw.

Wen plans to remain in London until at least Thursday, when she has a flight scheduled to a university 30-year class reunion in Shanghai. “My friends in Shanghai told me they don’t want me to come,” jokes Wen. “They want Claire to keep winning.”

Wen has made sacrifices before. She said she gave up her career as a biologist to raise her children and drive Claire across southern California for tennis lessons and training at a US Tennis Association academy in Carson, California.

“My mom has had to drive me two hours there and two hours back almost every single day for the last six or seven years,” said Liu. “She sacrificed a lot.”

Now that she has her driving licence, she often spends weekdays near the academy training with her coach, Chris Tontz, before going back to see her mom on weekends.

While Liu has the sunny smile and fun-loving spirit of southern California, she said Chinese culture, especially the emphasis on family and sacrifice, was giving her the strength and stability to challenge older, bigger women on tour.

“One of the most important things is being humble,” she said. “I don’t want to be super cocky or anything. I think it’s really important giving back to the community. I’ve been making donations to the Acing for Autism charity. I think that’s really important.”

“One thing that helped me is not to view tennis as my whole life. There’s other things outside tennis. Education is a big part of it. Staying focused in school. Knowing that after tennis, I still have a huge part of my life to do.”

Liu has already beaten other touted teenagers, including Kayla Day and Amanda Anisimova. Liu was the first American to win Wimbledon juniors since Chanda Rubin in 1992.

Liu would love to play the Asian swing of the WTA tour at events in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and other cities including Wuhan, the home of her idol Li Na.

“When I was younger I would always look up to her,” said Liu. “I would try to model my game on her. I used to think, ‘What are her strokes’. She’s a big role model for sure. She’s hilarious. It would be awesome to meet her.”