China embraces Li's success

1/28/2011 - Tennis Na Li

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After making history, Li Na turned on her cell phone and found 44 text messages.

Friends, family, players and sports officials were cheering her accomplishment at the Australian Open as a big step for her career and potentially a giant leap for China.

When Li walks onto Rod Laver Arena on Saturday for the championship match, it will be the first time a Chinese player will play in a Grand Slam singles final. A victory by Li could give a major boost to tennis in China, where the sport has long struggled for recognition in the shadow of badminton and table tennis.

Li will have to overcome three-time U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters, Belgium's 27-year-old mother of one who is playing with extra motivation because it may be her last Australian Open.

The 28-year-old Li said she was amused by the avalanche of messages on her phone. She was not fully aware of the reaction back home -- she doesn't read news about herself because it might make her "angry or sad."

She took the rare step of breaking away from the Chinese state-run sports system in 2008 and hired her own coach. At the end of the 2010 season, she replaced former coach Thomas Hogstedt with her husband, Jiang Shan.

There's not much negative news now.

"Li Na makes history entering the Australian Open final" read the front page of the Beijing News. Inside, the tabloid ran almost two pages of coverage on Li's semifinal upset over top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki.

Chinese tennis federation head Sun Jinfang was widely quoted as comparing Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang.

One of the text messages Li received came from China's tennis federation boss.

"She said, 'Well done. [When] you come back, I pay [for] dinner.' "

To which Li replied: "What? Only dinner?"

Another message came from her mother, who doesn't watch Li's matches because it makes her too nervous. But someone conveyed the good news. "She sent me a text message. She said, 'Well done. I waiting for you in the home,' " Li said, laughing.

"My best friend just called me. She was crying on the phone," Li said, pretending to cry and hyperventilate at the same time. "I was like, 'OK, take it easy. What do you want to say? Just calm down.' "

The WTA expects Li's success to help spur the growth of tennis in China.

"Li Na's breakthrough performance will propel the popularity of women's tennis forward exponentially in the China market," WTA CEO Stacey Allaster said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.