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PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT : Hu Na, the Chinese Player Who Defected 3 Years Ago, Advances at Wimbledon

Times Staff Writer

How do you get to Wimbledon?

Practice, practice.

Or you can grow up in the Szechuan province of China, travel with a Chinese team to Santa Clara for a tennis tournament, disappear into the dead of night from your hotel room, show up six days later requesting asylum, cause an international incident in the process, go into hiding for eight months, be granted asylum only after considerable gnashing of teeth in Washington, and go on to take up residence in San Diego.

Then you practice, you practice.

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So it was that Hu Na, the woman without a country, three years after defecting, came to play her first match at Wimbledon Thursday and walk away a winner. This may be a story with a problematic ending, but you have to say this was certainly a happy midpoint.

But Hu’s days were not always so happy, her life in the West not always so glorious.

There was the pull of home and parents and friends to deal with. There was the uncertainty of a new life in a new land with a new language. And perhaps most of all, there was a level of tennis she had never imagined and which Hu was unable to equal.

“The first couple of months were very difficult,” she said Thursday in newly learned English.

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Tough days, long nights. She said she tried hard not to cry.

“This year,” she said, “I started to feel good about myself.” Good about her tennis, good about her life.

“Whenever my tennis would start to go up, I would have another injury,” Hu said.

It looked all so simple on Thursday, playing on Court No. 1 against Annabel Croft, a Briton and a crowd favorite. Hu, perhaps the first Chinese woman ever to play at Wimbledon, beat her in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5, breaking Croft at 5-5 in the second set.

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“Mind you, I’ve been told she cracks under pressure,” said Croft, who had broken Hu’s serve to even the second set. “She didn’t today.”

The women on the tour know that Hu, 22, is not really tournament-tested. She came to America with great expectations, but not with a game to match. This was no Martina Navratilova-style defection.

When she finally emerged and began to play, she began to lose. Her serve was inadequate, her backhand almost nonexistent. Last year, she ruined an ankle and was out for months. Sure, Hu had some promise and she had some top coaching, but she was--and remains--no sure thing.

The tennis would have been difficult enough. There were other problems.

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She received letters from her parents, made public by the Chinese, entreating her to come home. There was some suggestion in the United States that the letters were written by someone other than her parents. That certainly counts as a distraction.

Her defection took the Chinese completely by surprise. In Santa Clara for the Federation Cup, a women’s tournament that brought together teams from 38 countries, Hu simply failed to show up for a match. Her roommate last saw her reading in bed. In the morning, Hu was gone.

It was an especially delicate moment in Sino-American relations, and there were those in Washington who looked on anxiously as the Chinese suspended various cultural exchanges, including a pre-Olympic volleyball match.

Hu doesn’t talk about any of this. She doesn’t say who hid her or where she went or what exactly she was feeling. She was 19 and in a strange country under strange conditions. One can imagine.

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It is not an easy thing any time to be granted asylum. Hu had to show a hardship other than financial.

And when she finally emerged, Hu said that the leader of her sports camp had written her a strongly worded letter telling her she had to join the Communist Party. She said that could have been dangerous, citing the case of a former table tennis champion who had joined the party, become Minister of Sport and then lost his position when his sponsor fell into disfavor.

She won her case, but winning tennis matches proved to be more difficult.

Hu had come to America for tennis, for better competition, for better coaching. She was surprised, however, to learn how far behind the leading players she was.

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She began playing at age 8, inspired by her grandfather, and became the best in China. Today, she is the 150th best player in the world, which doesn’t scare a lot of people. Today, she has found San Diego to be a wonderful place to live--"I love the weather"--and to go to college and to paint seascapes and to practice her tennis.

Today, she can speak English, having learned it from watching television, especially, “Three’s Company.”

“Jack Tripper was my teacher,” she said. Today, she can come to Wimbledon, win three qualifying matches and then knock off Anabel Croft.

“I did not think to win or lose,” Hu said. “I just thought about playing at Wimbledon. I am so happy.”

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She smiled a smile that has now charmed people on three continents. At home, she lives with people who share her smile and charm and apparent good will.

But it isn’t perfect. She has made friends and learned English, but Hu has communicated with her parents only by mail since coming to America.

“It is difficult,” she said. “They have no phone.”

And she does not expect them to learn of her triumph for 10 days, the time it takes for her letters to arrive in China.

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But at least, the news will be all good.


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