MELBOURNE (Reuters) - China’s hopes of a first grand slam finalist were crushed by two of the greats of the women’s game on Thursday but Li Na and Zheng Jie’s brilliant Australian Open run marked another step in the country’s inevitable rise.
Dubbed China’s “Golden Flowers” by an appreciative media at home, Li and Zheng’s record-shattering path to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park ignited the draw and offered the astonishing possibility of an all-Chinese final.
That notion was snuffed out when a rampant Justine Henin thumped 35th-ranked Zheng 6-1 6-0 following Serena Williams’s 7-6 7-6 win over the 16th-seeded Li.
But like Russia’s rapid rise to tennis super-power status in the last 10 years, the world will need to get used to seeing more Chinese names at the business end of grand slams.
As with all sports, tennis was once denounced as bourgeois and decadent, and banned in China under the rule of the late Mao Zedong, but the game has come along way in a very short time.
Olympic ambitions have played a big part, with the Communist Party leadership throwing resources, cash and foreign coaches into the game to produce players who can bolster medal counts.
The country’s Soviet-style sports system produced a shock gold in Athens in 2004, when Sun Tiantian and Li Ting took the women’s doubles title, the same year Li broke through for China’s first tour win in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Zheng, who has vied with Li for the number one status in China in recent years, then partnered Yan Zi to clinch the country’s first doubles grand slam titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.
Li’s breakthrough quarter-final at Wimbledon the same year, followed by Zheng’s semi-final there in 2008, continued China’s steady march.
While well into middle-age by tennis standards, 27-year-old Li and 26-year-old Zheng are now playing the best tennis of their lives, surprising themselves with their own progress.
“My goal was to make the top 10 this year, but I’ve already done that,” said Li, whose quarter-final win over Venus Williams ensured she will pass the milestone when the new rankings are published on Monday.
“So next, maybe (go for the) top five, like step by step.”
Zheng, whose ranking peaked at 15 last year, will also break back into the top 20, after injuries and indifferent results at the grand slams last year sent it dipping to the 30s.
The two players form the vanguard of China’s push into the top ranks of world tennis and along with Yan and 43rd-ranked Peng Shuai, have been rewarded with freedoms rarely granted at home, where top athletes remain yoked to the state sport system.
After increasing friction between players and officials over training arrangements and pay, the Chinese Tennis Association allowed the four to “fly away” and organise their own coaches, tours and scheduling.
The decision, while criticised by more conservative officials in China, has been validated with Li and Zheng’s success at Melbourne Park.
Both players have said they have benefited from the freedom to train and rest at will, and from more specialist coaching available to them. They have also vowed to learn from their semi-final lessons and believe they have room for improvement.
“It wasn’t just that I made the last four. It’s because the things I’ve done in training really came out here so it’s been a good harvest,” said Zheng, a feisty counter-puncher who has hired American coach Nick Bollettieri to improve her serve.
Li, a hard-hitter with all the tools to succeed in the power-dominated modern game, has hired Swede Thomas Hogstedt and has shown a tougher mental edge after previously appearing brittle under pressure.
While not a single Chinese man appeared in the draw at Melbourne Park, junior champions are being groomed and a breakthrough tour win from the other sex may only be “three to five years away”, Hogstedt told local media.
Li and Zheng’s performance at Melbourne Park should inspire more young Chinese to pick up rackets but has also, Zheng conceded, put more pressure on them to keep the good times rolling.
“I wouldn’t say I like (that kind of pressure), but I think I can do my best to adapt to it,” she said.
“I hope more people can watch tennis and get involved, but of course this will require more good results.”