x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Li Na has China in her hands

An entire nation revels in the success of the Wuhan native.

Li Na returns the ball to Francesca Schiavone of Italy in the women's final match of the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris.
Li Na returns the ball to Francesca Schiavone of Italy in the women's final match of the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris.

Earlier this year a class of Chinese students studying western media in Hangzhou, a picturesque city south of Shanghai, were asked who they thought was currently the most famous Chinese athlete.

Predictably Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets basketball player was the majority answer. Second was Liu Xiang, the hurdler, and third was a table tennis player whose name was unfamiliar to the classroom's Occidental contingent.

Li Na, who had two months earlier become the first Asian tennis player to ever reach a grand slam final while competing at the Australian Open, went unmentioned.

When prompted, the class confirmed they knew who she was and were aware of the Wuhan-born player's achievement, but she was not at the forefront of any discussion.

Fortunately for the 29-year-old, repetition builds recognition. And success magnifies it.

On Friday, two of China's most renowned English-language newspapers ran Li's semi-final success at the French Open on their front page. China Daily said "Li savors [sic] her Grand chance", while Shanghai Daily said "Li Na gets second shot at glory".

Yesterday, Li's final triumph in Paris was broadcast live on state television and in the capital, Beijing, several outdoor viewing areas with large screens were set up.

"Everyone in China will be so excited," Li said after beating Francesca Schiavone, the defending champion, 6-4, 7-6 (7-0). And she was right.

"People now can feel it, that Chinese tennis is just too tough," said Tong Kexin, an announcer on the state-run China Central Television (CCTV). "This has left a really deep impression on the world. Li Na truly deserves to be called a great champion."

Popular Chinese online portals were immediately filled with joyous outpourings. "I was so excited that I cried!" read one post on Sina.com.

At a Beijing sports cafe popular with locals and expatriates, the crowd chanted "Go, go, go!" as Li prepared for match point and erupted in cheers as the ball hit by runner-up Francesca Schiavone sailed long.

"This is China's moment in tennis history," one male fan, Fu Wei, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Zhang Xuejiang, a 25-year-old watching the match with her boyfriend, told AFP: "I'm really happy. This is the first Chinese person, the first Asian person to win a grand slam."

In the heart of the Chinese capital, fans who watched the match on a big-screen television set up outside for the occasion said the entire nation could revel in the success of the Wuhan native.

"I am so proud as a Chinese, this is so amazing!" Tao Shuai, an actor, told AFP.

"I have followed her these last few years. She is the best Chinese player but I could not imagine she could win this tournament.

"And now she will win more tournaments."

Jiang Qiudi, a female news executive for CCTV, praised Li for her "very strong spirit" during the gritty straight-sets victory, saying: "It was a wonderful match. I am very proud of Li Na."

The world No 7 had told reporters at the Dubai Tennis Open earlier this year that on the day after her previous grand slam final in Australia "all the courts at home were fully booked" and her new-found fame in a country home to 1.3 billion people saw her rewarded with high-profile sponsorship deals.

Keen observers will have noticed a Rolex glint as Li lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen above her head in front of a packed centre court while she revealed to The National in February that, courtesy of an ambassadorial role with Haagen Dazs, she can eat free ice cream anywhere in the world. Her favourite flavour is mint chocolate-chip.

It was not overindulgence that saw her lose in Australia, but rather nervous tension. After taking a 6-3 lead over Kim Clijsters at the Rod Laver Arena, she eventually succumbed 6-3, 3-6, 3-6. Yesterday at Roland Garros - where the crowd was dotted with small and large Chinese flags - she appeared far more at ease with her surroundings as she beat Schiavone in straight sets. Although she later admitted her composure was all an act.

"I was nervous, but I didn't want to show it to my opponent," she said soon after collapsing to the red clay while Schiavone's long forehand sailed out during the final shot of the tiebreak. "I was a little bit shaking."

Li is an intriguing character: tattooed, coached by her husband until only very recently and outspoken in a country that tends to toe the government line. Yet it is her forthrightness that has won her many supporters.

When she won her semi-final in Melbourne she revealed that she had endured an interrupted sleep because her husband had been snoring all night.

Yesterday, in her acceptance speech, she said the trophy was a present to her friend who was celebrating her birthday.

The snoring husband was soon dismissed as coach following a poor run of defeats; Michael Mortensen, the Danish trainer, replaced him. The decision epitomises Li's ruthless desire to succeed and following yesterday's triumph, Schiavone spoke highly of Li's recent development

"She's grown up so much this year and she played really well," the Italian said. "I couldn't really push forward from the baseline. She deserved to win. One has to lose, one has to win. She deserves everything."

At the very least, she deserves recognition. And she if finally getting it: CCTV ended their coverage of yesterday's final with a message. It read, simply: "Li Na, we love you".

* With agencies