by sportswriters Cao Yibo, Su Bin and Wang Qinou
BEIJING, March 9 (Xinhua) -- Making the move from player to head coach in women's basketball is no easy feat, to say nothing of making it to the final of a World Cup as both a player and a head coach.
So Zheng Wei has many reasons to be proud of herself.
The current head coach of China's women's basketball team steered her squad to second place at the FIBA Women's World Cup last year, tying the country's best record in the tournament. She was also part of the China team which reached the final of the World Championships in 1994.
In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, Zheng told her story of getting over regrets during a career spanning 28 years.
UNFORGETTABLE FIBA 2022 WORLD CUP
During the last Olympic cycle, China were widely considered serious medal contenders at major world competitions, but failed to prove their prowess at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
"In Tokyo, we were rallied past and eliminated by Serbia," Zheng recalled.
What made the year 2021 even more poignant for Zheng's team was that they were defeated by Japan in the Asian Cup final.
"Because of these setbacks my players really wanted to move a step forward and reach a new level," said Zheng.
For Zheng, the underperformance was somehow reminiscent of the 1994 World Championships, where China missed out on the title after losing to Brazil in the final.
"It was the closest China's women's basketball team had ever come to winning the world title. We defeated Australia to set up a final showdown with Brazil," said Zheng.
"We had never lost to Brazil in previous games, so we felt like we were already the world champions.
"But because we were mentally unprepared and too eager for success, we didn't play our best in that game and left with regrets," she added.
28 years later, Zheng made up for her regrets, even though the young China side she coached also finished runners-up at the World Cup after losing to the United States in the final.
Speaking of last year's World Cup journey, Zheng mentioned the quarterfinal against France and the semifinal against Australia as the two most unforgettable games, as the former represented a breakthrough for the team, while the latter showcased her players' tenacity and resilience.
"It was the best game that France played throughout the World Cup. Their shooting percentage was very high, and it was tough," said Zheng.
"But our players had prepared for that moment for years. Everyone held their breath and didn't want to leave with regrets.
"After breaking through this barrier, the players became more confident," she added.
In the match against hosts Australia, China withstood pressure even though they were playing without top scorer Li Meng.
"When the opportunity came, everyone's determination to move forward did not change. Although Li Meng did not play, everyone else stepped up and took responsibility," Zheng noted.
"I think it was willpower that helped us. Australia were a more experienced team, but by the fourth quarter, they couldn't keep up with us."
From the group stage to the final, Zheng's players kept surprising her with fantastic performances. "Maybe after breaking through that window, they couldn't be stopped. They did their best to present both technique and spirit on the court. I think there was no regret this time," said Zheng.
CHINA MOVING TO THE TOP
Basking in World Cup glory, Zheng urged her players to stay calm and work harder.
"We only made it to the final in this tournament. It might come just by chance," said Zheng.
"But if we are a genuinely top team like the USA, Australia, France and Spain, we need to prove ourselves in every competition."
A lack of experience is China's biggest weakness, which often led to inconsistent play in the knockout stages, said Zheng.
To change the situation, she stressed the importance of building up a more competitive professional league in China and scheduling more high-quality international friendlies for the national team.
Zheng summarized the trend of women's basketball as "a more physical game with more vaguely defined positions, fiercer defense, more intensive body contact and better individual techniques."
"I believe we are approaching our goals on the right track through training," she said.
TEAMWORK IS CHINA'S TRADITION
Having served as an assistant coach of China's national team for 12 years before taking charge as the head coach, Zheng is deeply impressed by the team's tradition of teamwork.
"Unity, cooperation, selfless dedication, and never giving up are the glorious traditions of China's women's basketball team," Zheng said.
"Shao Ting and Sun Mengran have passed them on to Yang Liwei and Li Meng, and the latter are passing onto the next generation."
Zheng said that she also had good cooperation with her predecessors and learned a lot from them.
"I had been analyzing opponents' strategies for the team before, so I am very familiar with both our players and our main opponents. What I can do is bring out the players' strength and make them more confident," she said.
BALANCING PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT AND NATIONAL TEAM
The 2022-2023 WCBA league season is set to conclude in mid-March. Zheng confirmed that the national team will assemble at the end of March to begin preparations for this year's two main events - the Asian Cup and the Asian Games.
"We will play the Asian Cup in June, but some of the players who were in last year's World Cup may not join the team because they have contracts with WNBA teams, so the mission will be tough for us," Zheng said.
According to Zheng, four or five players, including center Han Xu and veteran Yang Liwei, have contacts with the WNBA. Zheng said she hopes that they can refine themselves in a more competitive league and return to perform better for the national team.
Zheng revealed that the Asian Cup and the Asian Games are China's short-term goal, while their long-term goal is the Paris Olympics in 2024.
"We need to combine our preparations with the two goals," she said.
"We may recruit more young players who can compete in international events. They are eager to play for the national team. We want to observe them and help them grow.
"We hope to add one backup to every position. The national team's roster will include 16 to 18 players this time."
Asked about their prospects at Paris 2024, Zheng said: "We aim to match our World Cup performance in every major competition in the future. Hopefully we can achieve it." Enditem
(Gao Meng also contributed to this story.)