Chinese sad but still proud as Li Na fails to bloom

Beijing: Chinese reacted with sadness and disappointment after Li Na failed to win the Australian Open women`s title on Saturday but said they were still proud she had managed to get as far as the final.

"She played well but was outclassed. She does not have the experience of her opponent," said Pheobe Pei, 29, who had gathered with friends in a smoky Beijing bar to watch the game live on state television.

"We still support her and feel a great deal of pride. I think she will have another opportunity to win and we`ll be there for her."

Li, affectionately called "Big Sister Na" and "Golden Flower" in China, had the chance to become her country`s first grand slam singles champion following a surprise semi-final win over world number one Caroline Wozniacki on Thursday.

Third seeded Belgian Kim Clijsters, who beat Li in the final, was the favourite to capture a fourth grand slam title, but Li, seeded ninth, had already surpassed expectations.

For many young people in the Chinese capital Beijing, the 28-year-old Li is a role model, with her steely determination, broad smile and good English emblematic of a confident and rising China.

"Li was masterful in the first set. Regretfully she did not follow through," said Su Youbing, 32. "As the first Asian to get this far, she was amazing though."

China`s official state-run news agency Xinhua praised Li`s grace in accepting defeat.

"Despite losing the final, Li showed her class in congratulating Clijsters, while she also expressed her optimism and humour in front of the audience," it said.

China`s media have celebrated Li`s entry into the final as a coming of age for professional sports in the fast-growing country.

"To some extent, China`s economic development is also shaping the choices that people make," Chi Peng, an executive for the company that runs China`s tennis open told the Communist Party mouthpiece before the match on Saturday.

"In recent years, Yao Ming, Ding Junhui, Li Na and others have become the international representatives of Chinese sports. You cannot understate the power that these idols have for a big country."

Yao Ming plays in the NBA and Ding Junhui is a professional snooker player.

"In an instant, Li Na has become a new national idol," said a commentary on a popular sports website.

"She has made history for Chinese tennis, recast the record books of Asian tennis, and she can become the queen of this pursuit," it added.

China has a history of placing enormous expectations on athletes who have reached international acclaim and each live broadcast is usually viewed as a barometer of global standing or national pride.

In 2008, when defending champion Liu Xiang was forced to drop out of the 110 metres hurdles at the Beijing Olympics due to an injury, his withdrawal was met with tears, anger and accusations that the athlete had let the nation down.

Wuhan-born Li is among a handful of top women players whose success in an individual game inevitably conflicted with their country`s Soviet-style sports system.

Shortly after returning to training from two years out of the game, she won her country`s first WTA tour title on home soil in Guangzhou and two years later was in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.

Bureau Report