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This article was first published 12 years ago

Tough nut Li breaks new ground for Asia

Last updated on: June 5, 2011 17:38 IST

Image: Li Na pose with the French Open trophy in front of the Eiffel Tower
Photographs: 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.

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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.

Determined to add more Grand Slam titles

Image: Li Na with the French Open title

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.

'Chinese tennis will get bigger and bigger'

Image: Local tennis students hold posters featuring Chinese tennis player Li Na in her hometown of Wuhan

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.

'If I don't do well in Wimbledon maybe people will forget me'

Image: Li Na of China poses with her trophy near the Eiffel Tower in Paris after winning the French Open tennis tournament

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.

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