Some 2 1/2 years after defecting to the United States, tennis player Hu Na says she has found happiness in her adopted country despite failing to achieve the lofty ranking she enjoyed in her native China.
Tennis experts give the one-time top-ranked women's tennis player in China little chance of being a significant force on the pro circuit, largely because the United States and China are worlds apart in terms of the quality of tennis competition.
"When you've been No. 1 in a country with 990 million and come to a place where there are 1,000 girls who can beat you, it can be very unsettling," said Vic Braden, a noted tennis pro and one-time instructor for Hu Na.
But Hu Na and several others say she finally is healthy and able to devote full-time to improving her game. And, they say, she is slowly catching up with her competition on the U.S. tours.
"I think I am just starting," she said in halting English during a telephone interview from Key Biscayne, Fla., where she played in a U.S. Tennis Assn. tournament. "I played in some tournaments before I was over my injuries. After that I took a rest. I had injuries to my ankle, my shoulder--my whole body wasn't great but now it's fine. I'm ready."
Hu Na's debut after her defection was disastrous. In her first American tournament at Erie, Pa., in the summer of 1983, she was routed by Claudia Hernandez. Badly overmatched in subsequent outings, she finished the year with four wins in 13 matches on the Women's Tennis Assn. tour.
Hampered by injuries and her confidence shaken by losses to marginal players, Hu Na played only 18 matches in 1984, earning $1,850 on a 7-11 record.
She hasn't won a tournament since coming to the United States, and is currently unranked by the WTA because she has played in fewer than six WTA-sanctioned events in the past 12 months, said Peggy Gossett, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based association.
Now 21, Hu Na is attempting a comeback. She currently is on tour with the USTA, a proving-ground circuit. Her outlook on the game has improved with passage of time and with the decline in publicity about her July, 1982 defection, which set off a diplomatic brouhaha between the United States and China.
"That's over," she said. "I just want to look forward."
She has put down roots in San Diego, where she and her manager-adviser, Frank Wu, purchased a house last month.
"I am very happy," she said, adding that she decided to settle in San Diego "because it has the best weather in the world."
"I can practice the whole year and I have friends here," she said.
Hu Na doesn't like to talk about her defection, citing concerns for her family. She hasn't seen her parents or her older sister and younger brother since she slipped away from the Chinese team hotel the day before she was to play in the Federation Cup in Santa Clara, Calif.
Hu Na said she misses her family very much, writes to them twice a month and hopes for a reunion someday.
Her defection coincided with what she said was pressure to join the Communist Party, something she was unwilling to do. Her grandfather, who taught her how to play tennis in her native Szechwan province, was ousted from the party because e refused to teach communist philosophy to his students.
In her spare time, Hu Na takes English classes at U.S. International University in San Diego, dabbles in painting and goes to the movies. "I love to go shopping," she added.
Her goal in tennis, she says, is to be ranked in the top 20.
The frequency of tournaments and the level of competition are among the major differences Hu Na said she has encountered in playing tennis in the United States.
"It's totally different in China," she said. "We only have four tournaments a year so you practice for three months. But in the U.S., it's much harder. Like me now, I play every week and don't have as much chance to practice. . . . You learn in the matches, not only practice. That's very important, I think."
Hu Na joined the USTA tour on Dec. 28 at its first stop in Chicago, reaching the third round of qualifying before being eliminated. Last week in Key Biscayne, she came within one round of the quarterfinals and defeated the tournament's top-seed, Micki Schillig, before she was eliminated.
"It's one of her best wins yet, considering she defeated a top seed," said Art Newcomb, assistant director of the USTA.
When Hu Na came to the United States, she was about on par with some of the better juniors or middle-range college players, said one of her former coaches, Ken Walts, the head pro at the San Diego Tennis and Racquet club.
Her current coach, Steve Mott, who also coaches the men's team at UC San Diego, said he detects a tremendous improvement in Hu Na, both in terms of playing skills and attitude.
"She has a natural grace for the game," he said. "She has an enormous amount of ability and potential. She's making some big steps. Right now, she's playing the best tennis she's ever played."
Because of her injuries, Mott said, Hu Na hasn't had a chance to play in that many tournaments. He said he would have to see how she does over an extended period, perhaps two years, before judging her chances of making the transition to the pro circuit.