Beating the odds to go pro
China’s Va ethnic minority young champion goes viral on social media after wearing bamboo basket on national tennis court
Published: Oct 13, 2022 07:52 PM
Wang Fa (first left) with his family in Cangyuan county, Southwest China's Yunnan Province in September 2022 Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Xiaohong

Wang Fa (first left) with his family in Cangyuan county, Southwest China's Yunnan Province in September 2022 Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Xiaohong

When Wang Fa crowned another national champion on the tennis court a month ago, the 14-year-old would not expect his name to start trending on social media for his unconventional backpack: a beautiful handmade bamboo basket normally used by local villagers in Southwest China's Yunnan Province, his hometown.

At the end of August at the 2022 National Youth Tennis Tour in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, the Va ethnic minority up-and-comer won the U14 men's singles championship. 

The photo of Wang carrying a big basket on the court was posted on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo by the photographer and grabbed the public's attention for the amusing contrast it created. 

"It reminds me of my home and calmed me down when it accompanied me by my side," Wang told the Global Times in a recent interview.

"And of course it was fun," he joked, adding that he accepted the bag as a gift from a hometown fellow and decided to wear it as his new backpack.

The young athlete has apparently become a frequent guest on the tennis court across the country after years of competitions. An adolescent, as his coach said, "on his way to a determined professional after breaking away from a little boy coming from a deep mountainous area six years ago."

"Not only Wang Fa, when many other kids like him came to our tennis club for the first time, they didn't even know how to take care of themselves, so I had to be a nanny first, and then the coach," Zhang Xiaohong laughed recalling to the Global Times the time when he first saw those children coming from then poverty-hit mountainous areas 10 years ago.

Wild Elephant

The place Wang has lived in for the last six years is called Wild Elephant Tennis Club located near the Dianchi Lake in Kunming, Yunnan. Zhang built this semi-public welfare club 10 years ago, with four tennis courts rented by Zhang at a cost of over 100,000 yuan ($13,899) a year. 

On the other side of the court across the road is a simple but lively living area for them: a dormitory, a canteen and Zhang's office.

Zhang found this group of kids in 2014 when he had a self-driving tour in Cangyuan county, a Va autonomous county located in China's southwest border. 

Before the government's poverty alleviation mission was completed, the county used to be listed as one of the main poverty-stricken areas where local officials spent years in improving their infrastructure.

In Zhang's view, those kids' extremely physical fitness was "quite beyond the imagination, and some of them were born to be professional athletes."

On the other hand, such techniques may bring those kids a completely new way of life: At that time, the average annual salary of a tennis coach was enough to lift a mountainous family out of extreme poverty, and "in either way it would be a chance for the kids and their families."


It all started by finding 10 potential kids. However, the coach found it was even harder to persuade the first 10 families into this sport than to find potential children.

"Almost every family I visited turned me down. They saw tennis as some 'rich people's game' that they would never spend a penny on," Zhang recalled.

Some families even called him a liar, who came into the mountainous areas and tried to "steal their family deposits," he added.

Zhang started his lobbying with an annual training fee of 1,000 yuan, and it was far more than a family could afford; then he waived all the fees and decided to teach them completely for free.

Next step was to keep the kids within the sport considering days after days' seemingly boring training and inspire their love toward the sport.

"I had to 'guide them' first," Zhang joked.

In the living areas of those 10-year-old kids, model gun toys, car models, and storybooks scatter in the corners of the desks and beds, most of which were ones Zhang bought in town.

"I told them stories of Roger Federer and Li Na[the former Swiss and Chinese professional tennis players respectively], and the two have become their idols now."

The number of those kids has reached 30, where 14 of them are now able to participate in the national competitions. In addition to the championship, Wang won at the Youth Tennis Tournament in Guangzhou. He also crowned as national champion at the 2020 National Youth Tennis Tour when he was 12.


The story of the Wild Elephant Club was gradually discovered by the media. Several years ago, photographer Wang Jianyi also explored their story and began to take pictures of these children. It also was him who posted this viral photo on social media that touched the public.

Not long ago when the club signed an agreement with the Langfang Tennis Association in North China's Hebei Province, the kids were able to train at a more standard venue with better equipment.

The coach again paid a visit to Wang Fa's family in Cangyuan, and brought his brother Wang Yi into the group for training.

"Our next goal is to hit the international stage. Given that these children have the experience and vision in the national tours, they deserve a bigger stage," Zhang added.