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Reluctant standard-bearer on cusp of making Chinese history

Li Na's second chance to become the first Asian to clinch a singles grand slam title on Saturday has stirred patriotic fervour among home fans hoping to celebrate another milestone in China's rise in the sporting world.

Trailblazer Li already has the distinction of being Asia's first to break into a grand slam singles final after her brilliant run at the Australian Open in January. There, her title bid was foiled by Belgian Kim Clijsters, but glory beckons again for the 29-year-old from the Yangtze river port of Wuhan, who may have her best chance of clinching the elusive major trophy against Italian champion Francesca Schiavone in today's French Open final.

"If someone can be behind you and push you a lot, I like it," Li told reporters at Roland Garros yesterday. "I don't even think of tomorrow as a final, it's just the one match."

Asked why she was only flourishing at 29, she hit back saying: "I'm not old, why do you think I'm old. I'm still young," she laughed. While the match is likely to be watched by only a smattering of Chinese fans at Court Philippe Chatrier, a massive home audience will watch the match on television and bloggers are already full of anticipation.

"I'm rooting for you, I wish you well. You are the pride of China and we've got your back!" one with the handle JoJoJiao wrote on the country's most popular microblogging site Weibo. Li's title shot on the Paris clay attracted 1.7 million followers by yesterday morning on Weibo, while China's foreign ministry website also gushed with praise.

"Li Na's first charge into the French Open final match is the result of years of hard work and also embodies the rapid development of tennis in China," China's ambassador to France Kong Quan said according to the Foreign Ministry release. "Using uncommon strength, she soundly defeated Russia's Maria Sharapova and wrote the glory and charm of China's women's tennis players into the books of French tennis history," he said, referring to Li's Russian semi-final opponent.

Sport and politics remain tightly woven in China, where elite athletes are handpicked from a young age to be nurtured by the state, and only few are permitted to manage their own careers.

Li, who was identified as a potential badminton talent as a child, was steered into tennis before her teens, but had to be coaxed back into the game in 2004 after walking away to study media. Despite growing adulation from her success, including becoming China's first WTA title-winner in 2004 and first grand slam quarter-finalist at Wimbledon two years later, Li has proved a reluctant standard-bearer.

After numerous clashes with local media and Chinese tennis officialdom over training arrangements and pay, in 2009 the strong-willed Li was permitted with four other top women players to manage her own career and keep a greater share of her winnings.

Li's ability to reach new heights away from the tight embrace of the state has also drawn admiration from locals. Her unpredictable temper has also kept spectators on edge and during her final loss to Clijsters at Melbourne Park, she demanded the chair umpire tell Chinese fans to stop "coaching" her.

After the match, she then drew roars of laughter from the centre court crowd by telling her husband Jiang Shan she would love him forever whether he was "fat or skinny or ugly". Chinese fans will be eager to see what surprises Li can produce on Saturday in Paris.

"Of course it's great when a fellow Chinese can succeed from their own hard work independent of the country. I think that her own path to success didn't have much to do with the country," Beijing resident Sun, 34, said.

"Li Na has shown us that an independent professional athlete can rely on herself and her ability to succeed," another said. "She doesn't need to represent anyone and doesn't need anyone to represent her."