01
Feb
11

Li Na, the toast of China, says, “I hope after three to five years, maybe China will be like Russia and have many players coming through.”,

Li Na is a winner despite her defeat by Kim Clijsters in the women’s singles final of the Australian Open on Saturday. Her memorable achievement in becoming Asia’s first Grand Slam finalist has put Chinese tennis firmly on the map. Li led the final against the Clijsters, before the world No. 3 switched tactics to close out a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory for her fourth Grand Slam title, and her first outside the US Open. Mother-of-one Clijsters, 27, had gone into the tournament as the firm favourite in the absence of injured defending champion Serena Williams, and she duly delivered with a gutsy and intelligent win over Li. But if ‘Aussie Kim’ – Clijsters’ Australian nickname since her previous engagement to Lleyton Hewitt – was a popular winner, the funny and charming Li equally won hearts on her way to the runner-up spot.

Saturday’s final received blanket media coverage in China, despite tennis’ relatively low profile, prompting Li to dream of a Russian-style boom in the world’s most populous nation. ‘I hope after three to five years, maybe China will be like Russia and have many players coming through,’ she said. Russia had 18 women in the singles draw at Melbourne, while China had just three: Li, Peng Shuai and Zhang Shuai. Even Clijsters said she could feel the excitement of the Chinese fans during the thrilling final in Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena.

‘I think there was obviously a lot of Chinese or Asian people out there who wanted to live this moment with her,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to kind of see that Asia, and especially China, is starting to get recognised in this sport, too.’ Tennis is still building a following in China and lags behind basketball and football in popularity in a country of 1.3 billion. ‘I’m better known abroad than in China,’ Li told Shanghai’s Xinmin Evening News in an interview on Jan 19.

Li will move into the No. 7 spot when the new WTA rankings are released on Monday – a career best.

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