China exults at first Slam championship

Beijing: China rejoiced after Li Na`s French Open triumph brought Asia its first Grand Slam singles win, sparking confident predictions of a new dawn for the game in the world`s most populous nation.

The Chinese blogosphere lit up in adulation and newspapers splashed Li`s beaming face across their front pages after the 29-year-old from Wuhan beat defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-4, 7-6 (7/0) on Saturday.

"Li Na makes history!" a Chinese newspaper blared. "Her triumph is expected to provide a major push to a sport already rising fast in China."

Tennis in China is still largely the preserve of the well-heeled, but the sense of national pride was unmistakable at this latest declaration of the country`s growing might on the world stage.

National broadcaster CCTV televised the match live to tens of millions of viewers across the country of more than 1.3 billion, and at the climax plastered a graphic on the screen which read: "Li Na, we love you!"

In an online survey by a top Internet portal, 44 percent of more than 100,000 respondents said they had cried at Li`s victory, which the website described as the "pride of China and of Asia".

In a pulsating Beijing sports bar late Saturday, Li`s accomplishment won over those who admitted they were less than tennis-savvy.

"I`m very happy. I`m Chinese, she is Chinese. I don`t really understand the game but I am very happy," said 27-year-old Gao Lei.

The match even intruded onto a sober Asia-Pacific security forum being held in Singapore. As Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie prepared to deliver a speech Sunday, he was openly congratulated on Li`s win by the forum`s chairman.

After beating Schiavone, Li herself expressed hope her victory would inspire a new generation of Chinese players to emerge and challenge the sport`s traditional centres of power in Europe, the Americas and Australia.

In a message to her followers on the Twitter-like microblogging site, Li declared: "I`ve finally realised my dream!

"I`m overjoyed at the support everyone`s given me for so long. I could never have achieved this victory without your help; I hope you`ll always support me."

The tennis star`s mother Li Yanping confessed that she was one of the many who broke into tears when her daughter fell onto her back in the red dirt of Roland Garros after Schiavone`s shot went long on match point.

"I noticed that Li Na didn`t cry herself. She`s become stronger than I am," the mother said.

"I hope that she`ll put in more match-winning performances and that she`ll also be able to relax," she added.

Li has no time to rest on her laurels, with Wimbledon and its grass courts fast approaching. But however she fares at tennis`s pre-eminent tournament, former star Martina Hingis sees the game in China as a whole developing.

"It`s amazing for Chinese tennis. It`s something to build up on to. What a fairytale story," the five-time Grand Slam singles title winner told a news channel.

The legendary Martina Navratilova said Li`s success had come despite the influence of the sports powers-that-be in China, not because of it.

"She broke away from the pack. A few years ago she went off on her own -- didn`t stay with the federation. She was a rebel," one of the sport`s greatest female players said on a news channel.

"Now I think she will rewrite the textbook for Chinese studies as to how to build a champion," Navratilova said.

Others in Asia looked on with a mix of pride and envy.

Japan`s biggest selling newspaper, also featured Li on its front-page on Sunday and said: "While Japan suffers from a lack of new players, the new star of the world has emerged in China."

Bureau Report

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