Considering China’s huge investment in tennis over the last decade it has taken the world’s most populous country time to make its mark in singles competition. Chinese women have enjoyed some success in doubles, but in the more competitive world of singles it has been harder to achieve.
There are still no men capable of competing at the highest levels, but in the women’s game the Chinese are gradually making their mark. Here at the Australian Open China will have two players in the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time after Li Na today joined Zheng Jie in the quarter-finals when she beat Caroline Wozniacki, last year’s US Open runner-up, 6-4. 6-3.
Wozniacki, the No 4 seed, is one of the most promising players on the women’s tour, but the Dane never looked at her best here. She had her thigh heavily strapped when 3-1 down in the second set and was not moving well. Without any big weapons to her game, Wozniacki relies on her athleticism and stamina to wear down most opponents.
It was not a match of the highest quality. Both players struggled to hold serve, but once the big-hitting Li had taken a 2-0 lead in the second set she always looked the more likely winner. Wozniacki still had her chances, but at 5-3 Li served out for the match, securing victory on her second match point when Wozniacki hit a forehand long.
“I was playing aggressively today,” Li said. “I know she's good player. I also played her last week in Sydney. It was a tough match. I knew that if I gave her a chance maybe she would beat me. I was trying to hold on in every point. I didn't want to give her a chance.”
Li now meets Venus Williams for a place in the semi-finals after the American beat Francesca Schiavone 3-6, 6-2, 6-1. They have met just once before, when Li won 7-5, 7-5 in the quarter-finals at the Beijing Olympics two years ago.
"She's a very good player,” Williams said. “Obviously to beat Wozniacki, you have to play very well consistently. I'm sure she did that.”
Li said she did not remember much about her Beijing victory. “It was good experience for me, for my tennis, but I just want to forget it because now I have to play her again,” she said. “I just want to look forward.”
How did Li explain China’s current success? “Because we are working so hard. Actually in China we also have good men players, but right now they don’t have a high ranking so they always play in small tournaments. But I still believe that within three years we’ll be seeing some successful Chinese men.”
Zheng, who partnered Yan Zi to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles three years ago, says that public interest in tennis and Government support for the sport is growing in China.
”It's increased significantly from four or five years ago,” she said. “Even when it comes to media interest, corporate sponsors — in every aspect, there is a deeper interest and understanding in tennis.”
She added: “There needs to be a process. After all, the development of tennis in China didn't start as early as it did in foreign countries. But I think people can see the improvement in our ranking in the last few years. They can see more Chinese players active on the tennis scene. So I think there will be a top 10 player from China. It's a matter of sooner or later. But it will take some time.”