Li flies flag for China's emerging generation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

China's prospects of acquitting themselves favourably during the Beijing Games in two years' time were done no harm at all yesterday by the dogged victory of their leading player, Li Na, who came from a set down to defeat the fifth seed, Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Li may have the shortest name in the world game, but her reputation is growing rapidly. Having been ranked 27th in these Championships - the highest seeding ever for a Chinese player - she has now enhanced her standing by defeating an opponent who reached the French Open final earlier this month.

Having become the first Chinese player to break into the world's top 30 this month, Li headed five fellow countrywomen in the main Wimbledon draw. And the 24-year-old from Wu Han, who took up tennis at the age of eight after being poached by a coach who had spotted her playing badminton, is making the most of her first appearance at Wimbledon.

Others, however, are capitalising on their experience here. As she went about her work on No 2 Court yesterday in temperatures that soared towards 30C, Justine Henin-Hardenne - who reached her first grand slam final in SW19 five years ago - wore her habitual sun-visor. In mental terms, she was also wearing the thickest pair of blinkers you could ever imagine.

The woman who retained her French title earlier this month has now won three of the game's four Grand Slam championships. But repeated questions about her chances of completing the set here in SW19 are receiving a response akin to a blocked volley.

"I just go match after match," the 24-year-old Belgian responded yesterday when asked whether this year - where by common consent the women's competition appears to be wide open - represents her best chance of gaining the fourth title. "My next match is going to be my next goal, and that's it. I don't want to look too far. That's the way I have to think in the next few days."

The concentration has been such that she has not even taken time out to watch any of her likely rivals in other matches here, a fact she admitted to with the ghost of a smile before apologising to the assembled media for the absence of obvious copy.

Henin-Hardenne conceded that being able to adjust from clay courts to grass thanks to last week's Eastbourne tournament - which she won - had made a big difference to her state of preparation as she sought to go one better than her performance here in 2001, when she lost the final to the current champion, Venus Williams.

"I didn't have a choice last year, and I wasn't in good enough shape to come here," she said. "The situation was much more different this year, and that was better for me."

Conditions were certainly sufficient to test out the fitness of those on court yesterday. At 15-love up, serving for the first set, Henin-Hardenne had to replay her point after a ballgirl subsided to the turf, overcome by the heat. There was no wavering from the Belgian, however, as she ignored the frequent eruptions of emotion from her Russian third-round opponent, the 30th-seeded Anna Chakvetadze.

The 19-year-old Muscovite looked on occasions as if she was about to throw away her racket and walk off as Henin-Hardenne's steely grip began to close around her. There was a late flourish, as the Belgian was broken while serving for the match, but the Russian then succumbed in her own service game to lose 6-2, 6-3.

Comments