Beijing: She was known as a rebel at one time but following her historic French Open victory, Li Na`s popularity is now at par with basketball giant Yao Ming, according to local media in China.
Li had walked out of China`s powerful tennis establishment in 2008, brushing aside objections from officials to marry her coach Jiang Shan.
"Li Na is hailed nationwide as an idol on a par with NBA superstar Yao Ming, following her historic victory in Paris that made her the first Asian tennis player to lift a grand slam singles title," a commentary in the state run Xinhua news agency said on Sunday.
Li Na, who struck a lonely burrow after rebelling against tightly controlled tennis establishment, started gaining national admiration for not simply for her powerful stroke- play but also for her free style comments mincing no words, a rare character among current lot of Chinese.
While there was no official encomium from the top leadership for her extraordinary feat of becoming the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam, the state television telecast her matches live while the official newspapers praised her to the sky.
Early this year, Li Na had ruffled many feathers by yelling back at some of the Chinese supporters for asking her to change the coach when she played a poor shot at the finals
Australian Open where she lost to Kim Clijsters.
At the end of the match she made it a point to make an emotional complement to her husband saying "It doesn`t matter if you are fat or skinny, handsome or ugly, I will always follow you, always love you,"she said while Shan wiped his moist eyes."
Her request to umpire "can you tell the Chinese spectators not to teach me how to play tennis?", provoked a rally of abuse among the some of the nationalist Chinese over
the internet questioning her attitude, saying that she spoke against her compatriot spectators like an `outsider`.
"This time however she conquered all Chinese hearts. On the Chinese Internet, home to more than 470 million users, followers of Li` s microblog rose roughly 200,000 overnight to 2.07 million," the Xinhua commentary said.
"Major portals were flooded with messages of congratulations, with someone writing that "the victory belongs to Li Na as well as to the country" and a few saying that "I was excited and burst into tears.
"However some had dig at her saying that the final victory came to her after she replaced Shan as a coach with Danish Michael Mortensen.
"Li has never been poorly skilled. She made a wise decision when firing her husband Jiang Shan as coach and the new coach from Denmark breathed new life into her team," Xu Feng, who claimed to have become Li`s fan since 1999.
Knowing fully well that it will be a talking point back home in China, Li Na paid special gratitude to Shan after the match saying "although he (Jiang) is not my coach any more, I
want to give many thanks to him. He always understands me and tolerates me. Thanks for accompanying me all the time."
Li Na, from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, is widely considered an inspiration to the younger generation and a symbol of modern female independence.
She is also acclaimed by some as part of China`s soft power overseas.
People in her home country compare her with China` s three best known international sportsmen, saying that the nation has Li` s strength, along with Houston Rockets center
Yao Ming`s height, Olympic hurdle champion Liu Xiang`s speed and snooker star Ding Junhui`s accuracy.
Li`s popularity will soon exceed that of Yao Ming and Liu Xiang at home and abroad, said former national rowing champion Zhang Xiang, who is also from Wuhan.
"I think tennis has a longer history and is more influential internationally than basketball and hurdle race.
Zhang`s colleague, who declined to be identified said "after quitting the state-run sports system in 2008, Li started her own team, chose her own coach and is responsible to her own financial security. Despite help from her husband, all this is not easy for a woman, whose sports career blossomed at 29."
Wang Yifei, a player in the provincial team in which Li was a member in the 1990s, said that "Big Sister Na" - Li Na`s nickname - set an example for us because she is "strong, unbending and unyielding" in pursuit of her career.
To become a perfect idol, all she needs to do is control her bad temper," Wang said.