It was surely one of the biggest receptions a losing semi-finalist has ever been given. When Li Na arrived back in Beijing early in the morning after this year's Australian Open, China's leading tennis player could hardly believe the scene at the airport.
"It was amazing," Li said. "There were so many people. Everyone was taking photographs and asking for my autograph. There were camera crews and journalists. Even our national team captain and coach were there, waiting with bunches of flowers."
Li may have lost her Melbourne semi-final, as did her compatriot Zheng Jie, but their exploits had ignited the public's imagination. Although the Chinese had enjoyed previous success in the women's doubles, this was the first occasion that two players from the world's most populous nation had played in the singles semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament.
The achievement brought further reward for Li, who became the first player from her country to break into the world's top 10. Now the 28-year-old's big goal is to become the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, with the French Open, which begins in seven days' time, her next target.
Twelve months ago, Li reached the last 16 at Roland Garros, while her performances in Madrid over the past week have reinforced her confidence on clay. "I think that I can be a good clay-court player," she said after her narrow loss to Shahar Peer in Friday's quarter-finals. "I have got to the quarter-finals of my last two tournaments and I'm feeling more confident on clay."
Until recently, China's tennis breakthrough had largely been a consequence of state planning. The authorities targeted women's doubles as the area in which they might enjoy the quickest success, particularly at the Olympic Games, and were rewarded when Sun Tiantian and Li Ting won gold in Athens six years ago. Grand Slam doubles titles followed for Zheng and Yan Zhi at Melbourne and Wimbledon in 2006.
The leading players were obliged to hand over 65 per cent of their winnings to the national association, which in turn paid for all their travel, coaching and equipment. It worked well enough, provided the players were happy to concentrate on doubles. Li, however, saw her future in singles and in 2002, at the age of 20, quit the game in frustration. "I didn't play tennis for two years," she recalled. "I wanted to play singles, but at the 2000 Olympics they wanted me to play doubles. I had to play doubles first and I fitted in singles when I could. I didn't feel I was being given the chance to become a good singles player."
Li went to university and did not pick up a tennis racket again until her then boyfriend Jiang Shan – now her husband and coach – persuaded her that she might regret not giving the sport another try. Her wish to concentrate on singles was finally granted and within months she became the first Chinese to win a singles title on the Sony Ericsson tour. Jelena Jankovic was among her victims in Guangzhou. Today the state's control has been loosened even further. The leading players can opt out of the national system and keep 92 per cent of their prize money, though they have to pay for all their running costs. There are now three Chinese women in the top 100 in singles: Li (world No 13), Zheng (No 25), who reached the Wimbledon semi- finals two years ago, and Peng Shuai (No 50).
The go-it-alone policy appears to be working well, though Li acknowledges that it was the state system that helped her when she was growing up in her home city of Wuhan in Hubei province. "My father was a badminton player, but didn't play professionally," she said. "He had this idea that I would become a professional badminton player. I played between the ages of six and eight, but the badminton coach said to me, 'You play badminton like a tennis player. Give tennis a try.' I did – and I have played it ever since.
"In the beginning I didn't particularly like tennis. It was not as big in China then as it is now. Not many people played tennis and the courts were all clay, not hard, though that has changed. My parents had to make a choice: either I could play tennis or I would have to stay at school. I enjoyed my tennis and that was what I ended up doing."
At 15, Li was sent to train at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in Texas. She won her first titles on the International Tennis Federation circuit when she was just 17.
Steady progress followed her return to competition in 2004, but it was in Melbourne this year that Li made her biggest mark. Having beaten two top-10 players, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, she gave Serena Williams one of her toughest matches before going down 7-6 7-6 in the semi-finals.
With her Melbourne matches shown live on Chinese television, Li has become a famous figure back home, though she says the autograph hunters can be a little hesitant. "I hear people saying: 'Is that her? Really? Are you sure?' I don't think they can quite decide. People are only used to seeing me on the tennis court."
More Chinese are now playing the game. "Tennis has got bigger and bigger," Li said. "When you go to the courts now they're all full. Everyone wants to play."
The success of Li and Zheng has helped to cement China's place in the game – the country hosts several tournaments, including a men's Masters event in Shanghai – though there is little sign of the men making a similar breakthrough to the women. There are no Chinese men ranked in the world's top 350.
Li said: "The men are working hard, but it's tough. There are so many good players around. The trouble is that the Chinese men don't have a high ranking, so they have to play at the smaller tournaments. But I'm sure before too long there will be at least one Chinese man in the top 100."Reuse content