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Ranked 28th in the world, Ai Sugiyama is Japan’s highest-ranked, female tennis player. During a recent visit to Tokyo for the Toray Pan Pacific Open, she sat down with The Japan Times to give her views on Japanese tennis, the developing power game in the sport and to issue some advice and criticism to her male compatriots.

The Japan Times: You are a well established tennis professional. Growing up was this something that you always wanted to do? Could you tell us how you became involved in competitive tennis?

Ai: Well, I started when I was four years old. My parents used to play socially and I just instinctively followed them onto the court and started hitting balls. When I was 16 I started to play in challenger tournaments, turned pro the following year and began traveling around playing in events.

So at the age of four, had your tennis ability already been noticed?

No actually. Tennis was just one of a number of activities that I tried out. I used to figure skate, do gymnastics and I played the piano but tennis was the one that I enjoyed the most and I decided to concentrate on it. So by the age of seven I was practicing tennis four to five times a week.

Was there anyone in particular that you consider inspirational in the development of your career?

No one in particular. When I was seven I joined a tennis academy and there were lots of good coaches and I enjoyed taking private lessons with them. There were lots of other girls my age there and I loved practicing so I guess you could say the enjoyment of practicing inspired me.

You represent the “older” group of Japanese tennis professionals. Do you help or advise any of the new gener ation of up-and-coming Japanese talent and who out of this group do you feel has the most potential to be the next Japanese tennis star?

I have my own tennis academy at home (in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture) which is designed to nurture new talent. I also practice a lot with Saori Obata, Akiko Morigami, Rika Fujiwara. We also help them with planning and scheduling and show them how to take short cuts through problems.

I think Morigami is playing some good tennis. In the recent Australian Open she competed in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time and reached the second round. She almost got through to the third round as she was up a set and leading 4-1 in the second against Tatiana Panova of Russia before losing in three sets. Obata is also playing really well.

Women’s tennis is becoming more and more of a power game with big-hitters like Serena and Venus Williams dominating events. Since Japanese players tend to be smaller in physical stature, do you view this as a disadvantage for Japanese tennis going forward?

I don’t like to think like that. We see this as more of a challenge to work harder and to concentrate harder on training and getting the basics right. Japanese players traditionally have good speed and timing and we want to use these qualities to our advantage.

On the men’s side, Japanese tennis doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere at present. Your thoughts?

I think Japanese male pros have let themselves fall into the comfort zone too much. They are spending too much time playing in Japan and not playing abroad enough.

They need to be playing against the top players in order to improve and develop their games. They need to include more overseas tournaments on their schedules and hone their skills against some of the big hitters. They are not doing enough to improve.

You have achieved greater success in doubles as opposed to singles. Is this because the doubles version is more suited to your game?

It is true that I do better in doubles but I am not sure if this is because my game suits it better or not. It may be a factor but I think I like playing doubles a lot because I enjoy playing with my partner and I can share the experience as we are in it together. To have the right partner is also very important.

So you like doubles better than singles?

No, I like singles too and I really want to improve. It’s just that they are so different.

Do you train differently for them?

Actually we don’t practice for doubles as we are mainly practicing for singles all the time. Sure we discuss strategies but we generally don’t train for doubles.

You are 27 years old now. As a rule of thumb, most players quit the pro circuit around the age of 30 — Martina Navratilova being a notable exception to this rule. You probably don’t have all that many years left on the tour. Any plans for when you retire?

I have my tennis academy, so when I quit I would like to go into coaching. But to be honest I am not even contemplating quitting the game right now. I like to play golf too so I want to spend time on the course.

Any chance of dusting off the clubs and becoming a pro?

(Laughs) No, no. I am not good enough. I just like to play for fun.

Finally, do you have any specific, short-term goals?

I would like to break into the Top 20 this year and then hopefully, once I have achieved that, try to break into the Top 10 in the world.

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