x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Li Na a reluctant standard-bearer for China

The Chinese gets a second chance to make history as the first Asian to win a grand slam title when she plays in the final at Roland Garros.

BEIJING // Li Na's second chance to become the first Asian to win a singles grand slam title has stirred patriotic fervour among home fans hoping to celebrate another milestone in China's inexorable rise in the sporting world.

She already has the distinction of being the first Asian to play in a grand slam singles final after her run at the Australian Open in January.

There, her title bid was foiled by Kim Clijsters, but history beckons again today for the 29 year old from the Yangzte river port of Wuhan.

While her match against Francesca Schiavone is likely to be watched by only a smattering of Chinese fans in Paris, a massive home audience will watch on television and bloggers were already bubbling with anticipation yesterday.

"I'm rooting for you, I wish you well. You are the pride of China and we've got your back!" one wrote on the country's most popular microblogging site Weibo.

"Go Li Na! China's 1.3 billion people are behind you," said another.

China's usually staid foreign ministry web site also gushed with praise.

"Li Na's first charge into the French Open final match is the result of years of hard work and also embodies the rapid development of tennis in China," Kong Quan, China's ambassador to France, told French media, according to the Foreign Ministry release.

Sport and politics remain tightly woven in China, where elite athletes are handpicked from a young age to be nurtured by the state, and only a handful are permitted to manage their own careers.

Li, who was identified as a potential badminton talent as a child, was steered into tennis before her teens, but had to be coaxed back into the game in 2004 after walking away to study media at university. Despite growing adulation from her success, including becoming China's first WTA title-winner in 2004 and first grand slam quarter-finalist at Wimbledon two years later, Li has proved a reluctant standard-bearer for Chinese tennis.

After numerous clashes with local media and Chinese tennis officialdom over training arrangements and pay, in 2009 the strong-willed Li was permitted with four other top women players to manage her own career and keep a greater share of her winnings.

Chinese fans will be eager to see what surprises Li can produce today in Paris.

"Of course, it's great when a fellow Chinese can succeed from their own hard work, independent of the country," Beijing resident Sun, 34, said.

"I think that her own path to success didn't have much to do with the country, as she paid her own way to train.

"Li Na has shown us that an independent professional athlete can rely on herself and her ability to succeed," another blogger said.

"She doesn't need to represent anyone and doesn't need anyone to represent her."

* Reuters

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