x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

China's Li Na wins the affections of her nation

The success of the Chinese women's tennis number one has spurred the sport in that country to go supernova.

There is nothing like a shooting star to grab the attention.

And the success of the Chinese women's tennis number one has spurred the sport in that country to go supernova.

As the Australian Open begins tomorrowmillions of fans around the world will be glued to their TV sets. But one player among the scores of hopefuls is likely to garner by far the most interest in terms of volume of fans - the world number six, Li Na

And she knows how to keep them on the edge of their seats.

The 30-year-old survived a mid-match meltdown to overcome the Czech Klara Zakopalova 6-3 1-6 7-5 in the final of the inaugural Shenzhen Open last weekend, a warm-up to the first Grand Slam event of the season, earning her a seventh World Tennis Association career title.

Li, who won the 2011 French Open, looked in danger of disappointing her legion of home fans after surrendering her serve in the first game of the deciding set. Although she hit back to win five of the next six games, from 5-2 up she allowed fifth-seed Zakopalova to draw level at 5-5.

In a topsy-turvy finish encapsulating the match, Li collected herself to put together two solid games and gain a lift ahead of the Australian Open.

"Winning the title certainly helps boost my confidence for the coming weeks, but it also depends on how I'm playing on the courts. Confidence itself won't guarantee a win," she said after the match.

"But I'm very happy to win and the Shenzhen Open was a great tournament. I believe it will get even better in future years."

The victory was Li's second WTA title in China, following her breakthrough at Guangzhou in 2004, when she became the first Chinese winner on the women's tour.

The US$500,000 (Dh1.83 million) Shenzhen tournament is one of three WTA events in Chinathis year.

And all the drama in Shenzhen will not harm the expansion of the sport in the world's most populous country.

Tennis in China is growing rapidly and has received much private and public support. Today, it is firmly entrenched in the Chinese consciousness as one of the most popular sports. Tennis is the third-most popular sport on television in the country, behind football and basketball, and is run by the national governing body, the China Tennis Association.

China has 30,000 tennis courts and an estimated 14 million people there regularly play the game, up from 1 million when the sport returned to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, according to the WTA Tour. The Chinese government is aiming to increase that by 15 per cent every year. The nation's tennis market is now worth upwards of $4 billion annually and is rising fast, according to Tom Cannon, a professor and sports finance expert at the University of Liverpool Management School in England.

The women's tour in 2011 upgraded the China Open in Beijing to become the only combined event with the men's tour in Asia. Played at the Beijing Olympic Tennis Centre with combined prize money of $6.6m and a main stadium that holds 10,000 spectators, the China Open is now one of the WTA's top four tournaments.

Although Li has not won the Australian Open, she recently praised Melbourne, where the event takes place, and the crowds at the Rod Laver Arena.

"I have to play in different countries and cities every week throughout the season, but Melbourne is always a special place," she said, "It's a place I made it into a Grand Slam final for the first time and a place where I felt I could win a Grand Slam one day."

Li cemented her place in Chinese hearts when she beat all the odds to reach the final of the Australian Open in 2011. She is the first Asian tennis player to reach a Grand Slam singles final, after beating some top-class performers including the Belarusian who is the defending champion in Melbourne, Victoria Azarenka, the German Andrea Petkovic and the world number one at the time, Caroline Wozniacki, to meet Kim Clijsters in the title match. Although she was overpowered by the Belgian veteran in a stiff three-setter, she redeemed herself later in the season by winning the French Open.

"Her performances have delighted tennis fans around the globe and the effect she has had on increasing interest and participation in tennis, particularly in China, is immeasurable," says Steve Wood, the Tennis Australia chief executive.

"Li's gorgeous smile and her commitment to the sport are quite impressive and have also made her a superstar in Australia."


* with agencies