Tough nut Li breaks new ground for Asia

Monday, 6 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Reuters: Li Na hits the ball hard and flat, displays her emotions, cracks acerbic jokes, is relatively old at 29 and her landmark triumph at the French Open will be welcomed far further afield than China.

In becoming the first player from an Asian nation to win a tennis grand slam title on Saturday by beating Francesca Schiavone, another player not afraid to break the traditional mould, she became a Chinese national hero.

She also proved that women’s tennis, currently robbed of American sisters Serena and Venus Williams because of injury, is not dominated by monotone Europeans scared to speak their mind and explore alternative ways to win matches other than smashing the ball in robotic fashion from the baseline.

“Today is a dream come true. Some say I’m getting old, for an old woman for a dream to come true it’s not easy,” the sixth seed joked to reporters with a trademark wry smile.

Her ultra-confident 6-4 7-6 victory over last year’s popular winner Schiavone on the Roland Garros clay smacked of someone determined to add more grand slam titles during the current lack of a stand-out stars in the women’s game.

Her single-mindedness led to her breaking away from the state set-up in China and then deciding earlier this year that she no longer wanted her husband as coach.

She hired Denmark Fed Cup captain Michael Mortensen and the results speak volumes.

An angry Li raised the decibels on her way to being runner-up at the Australian Open final in January, hitting out at “amateur coaches” in the stands who broke her rhythm when losing to Kim Clijsters at Melbourne Park.

Annoyed by the shouts of Chinese supporters, she marched up to the umpire and asked: “Can you tell the Chinese, ‘don’t teach me how to play tennis’?”.

Li certainly proved she can look after herself after her second grand slam final.

Other Chinese women such as Zheng Jie and Yan Zi, who have won two grand slam doubles titles, show the future looks bright for women’s tennis in the world’s most populous nation with Peng Shuai also knocking on the door.

The WTA’s Asian headquarters are in Beijing and the women’s tour has worked hard to promote tennis in China and is now seeing the benefits both on court and in its coffers.

“I still believe Chinese tennis will get bigger and bigger,” Li said.

Chinese men have yet to catch the tennis bug but having seen how Li has ripped up the tennis establishment at home and abroad, some might follow her lead.

Michael Chang, the American son of Chinese-born parents, became a hero to Asian tennis fans in 1989 when he triumphed at Roland Garros at the age of 17 to become the youngest male grand slam singles champion.

Chinese television viewing figures for Li’s victory on the same Court Philippe Chatrier will have been massively higher with millions upon millions expected to have tuned in despite the match happening late in the Asian night.

“If I don’t do well in Wimbledon maybe people will forget me already,” Li giggled. However she performs on the lawns in London the impact of her crowning glory in Paris on the future of the sport could well be felt for years to come.


China anoints champion Li as a legend

Reuters) - Chinese state media proclaimed Li Na's victory in the French Open on Saturday as the stuff of legends and miracles, elevating Asia's first grand slam singles winner to near mythic status in a country where national glory and athletic feats are closely entwined.

A rare front page sports story in the Sunday edition of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, the People's Daily, said the "China-red" clay court at Roland Garros symbolised a miraculous victory for the country.

"The girl from Hubei, Li Na, at the birthplace of the sport, has opened a new era in tennis for China and all of Asia," it said, headlines effusive in describing Li as "bravely seizing" the French title, and "writing an Asian legend."

The official English-language newspaper the China Daily said Li displayed an "all-conquering maturity" in her straight sets victory over holder Italy's Francesca Schiavone.

It was a national and personal redemption for the widely adored 29-year-old after falling in the Australian Open final to Belgian Kim Clijsters in January.

By Sunday, nearly 2.1 million people were fans of Li's twitter-like microblogging site on Sina's Weibo and millions more were talking about her win. Xinhua news agency said 95 million viewers tuned in to watch the match on state television.