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."

Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again say analysts

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
i100
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Sport
Fans of Palmeiras looks dejected during the match between Palmeiras and Santos
footballPalmeiras fan killed trying to 'ambush' bus full of opposition supporters
Arts and Entertainment
filmsIt's nearly a wrap on Star Wars: Episode 7, producer reveals
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey indulge in some racing at a Point to Point
tvNew pictures promise a day at the races and a loved-up Lady Rose
News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past