MANILA, February 9, 2004  (STAR) By Abac Cordero - All the Chinese left behind were footprints for the Filipinos to follow.

Showing tremendous improvement through the years, China flexed just enough muscle to split its reverse singles with the Philippines yesterday and seal a lopsided 4-1 win in their Davis Cup tie at the Ynares Socio-Civic Center in Pasig City.

The Chinese domination pushed them into the semis of the Asian-Oceania Zone Group 2 and shoved the Filipinos down into the familiar relegation round against either Kuwait or Hong Kong just for the right to remain within the group next year.

The Chinese onslaught also left local tennis officials in great awe of the former’s dynamic, expensive and government-backed tennis development program.

Here’s how it works.

Over the last couple of years, the Chinese play host to at least 15 international tournaments annually, and from these, they cull their top six players – four women and two men – based on ranking points.

These players are then placed under an elite program. Given a copy each of the year’s tennis calendar, they are made to choose 25 international tournaments they wish to compete in, mostly in Europe and the United States.

The government spends at least $200,000 (roughly P11 million) for each player. The money is spent on equipment, travel expenses, board and lodging, and allowances. Not a single centavo will come from the players or their families.

Of their money earnings from their chosen tournaments, the players get to keep 50 percent. The other half is then divided with 20 percent going back to the government, 15 percent to the coaches and another 15 percent to China’s junior tennis development program.

And no matter how much the players earn, the government-backed program continues. The players can spend 50 percent of total earnings any way they want. It’s theirs.

Government support only gets cut – and new talents come in – if the players fail to maintain a certain ranking or they get injured. So as long as they keep their ranking and stay healthy, the blessings just keep on pouring.

The results of this program are evident with more Chinese players slowly breaking into the world’s top 500 and a couple of doubles pairs already within the world’s top 100.

China’s top two players in the men’s division – No. 1 Zhu Ben Quiang and No. 2 Zeng Xiao Xuan – are now competing in Europe as part of their preparations for the coming Athens Olympics. Their top four women, on the other hand, are spread across competing in the United States.

According to Ajay Pathak, vice president for international affairs of the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta), the Filipinos could have kept pace with the Chinese only if they get the same support from the government.

"Because competing abroad is the only effective way of enhancing your skills," said Pathak, the only Asian who is a member of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) juniors committee.

He cited the case of Felix Barrientos, formerly the country’s top-ranked player who once enjoyed a world ranking of 170. Before his retirement in 1991, Barrientos, according to Pathak, had said that he needed at least $40,000 to compete in 15 international tournaments a year.

Barrientos’ father being a commercial pilot of the Philippine Airlines helped a lot because he got to enjoy the benefits given to direct relatives of PAL employees.

"But then, I think PAL didn’t have flights to all known destinations or that there was a certain limit for all those benefits especially when Felix got older," said Pathak.

Pathak said the entry of businessman-sportsman John Henry Lhuillier into the local scene could be the start of something big.

"I think he has good plans for the sport now that he’s been named team manager of the RP squad. What he can do probably is adopt a promising player and then give him or her all the needed breaks," said Pathak.

One player in Lhuillier’s mind these days is Patrick John Tierro, a 6-foot-1, 18-year-old find from Olongapo who’s now training under Beeyong Sison. PJ is set to leave for Europe in May for a six-week stint in a club league.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved