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By Chris Oddo

Sara Errani French Open (October 5, 2012) --  Last night, when Japanese men's No. 1 Kei Nishikori and Chinese women's No. 1 Li Na scored impressive victories within a few hours of each other in Tokyo and Beijing respectively, you could feel it.

Like a bolt of thunder or a rushing river after winter's thaw, it was real and ripe: Tennis in Asia is on the rise.

No Japanese male has won the Rakuten Open title since the event became an ATP tournament in 1973, but when Kei Nishikori knocked off a formidable Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, there was a palpable feeling that this could be the year.

Even if Nishikori doesn't win the title, it's the feeling -- and the fact that it becomes more and more palpable each year -- that will stick with tennis fans in the region.

A true sense of hope is also in the air in Beijing, where Nanjing, China native Ze Zhang reached the quarterfinals on the men's' side, marking the first trip to the quarterfinals of an ATP event by a Chinese male in 17 years.

The unheralded 22-year-old has a spunky on-court demeanor, and he gave the hometown faithful something to remember when he became the first Chinese man to ever defeat a top 20 player, taking out Richard Gasquet  while wearing his baseball cap backwards Lleyton Hewitt style, and pumping his fist with verve as he won crucial points.

It was a rare spectacle, seeing a Chinese man have his way with a former top ten player who is fresh off a title, but it might not be so rare in the years to come. The sport has gone global over the last several decades, and while the Chinese men have been largely left out of the party, they are sure to find their way at some point.

Thanks to Li Na, Chinese women have already arrived at the scene. But even as Li has earned fame and raised the profile of Asia as a majorplayer on the world tennis scene with her French Open title in 2011, more titles -- particularly a prestigious title at this year's China Open -- still have the potential to convert more fans and potential players.

Li herself, a former badminton player who switched to the bigger court and felt-covered balls at age nine, had to alert her eager-to-please parents to the existence of tennis as a viable activity 20 years ago.

Thanks to Li and Nishikori, Asian tennis fans can boast world-beaters as their ilk these days. And formerly nonplussed parents know that tennis can be a viable -- and lucrative -- endeavor.

Nishikori smashed through the previous best ranking for a Japanese male last October, and today he sits nearly 30 places higher at No. 17 in the world. More importantly, the 22-year-old who his remarkably quick and powerful for his size looks poised to go higher.

Nishikori will face Marcos Baghdatis for a shot to reach his first final of the year at home in Japan on Saturday. "To see all the fans here, all the people who showed up to watch this match today is a really good feeling," Nishikori said after stunning World No. 6 Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals for his third top ten triumph of 2012.

Li will face Maria Sharapova in the semifinals in Beijing. Given Li's current form (she was brilliant in her victory over Agnieszka Radwanska last night) and her history with Sharapova (their last match in Rome was a captivating three-setter), Chinese fans should be treated to a magical evening of tennis.

The pioneering Li, with her trademark wry humor and her out-of-this-world baseline bashing, is the greatest piece of promotional material that Chinese tennis has ever known.

Nishikori functions in a similar role in Japan.

As each pushes further this autumn, the lasting impression is being made. They are building it, and they are coming.

(Photo Credit: Yuriko Nakao/ Reuters)

 

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