By Joe McDonald
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Li Na’s landmark French Open victory sparked celebrations and recognition throughout Asia on Sunday, while China’s state media told its athletes to learn from her as they prepare for the London Olympics.
“She is now the pride of Asia,” said retired Thai player Paradorn Srichaphan.
Li’s victory over defending champion Francesca Schiavone last Saturday came at 11 p.m. in Beijing, on a holiday weekend, but Chinese state television rebroadcast the match Sunday and it was on the front pages of most newspapers.
People’s Daily, the flagship paper of the ruling Communist Party, put a large color photo of Li kissing her trophy at the top of its front page under the headline, “Li Na Reached the Summit of the Grand Slam.”
Li’s career had blossomed since she pulled out of China’s government-run sports training system in 2008. That will likely raise questions about the costly system, which has produced Olympic champions in gymnastics and track and field — along with other racket sports, such as badminton and table tennis — but has a poor record in more commercial sports such as tennis and golf.
Chinese sports officials publicly congratulated each other in an apparent effort to link the government to the victory, even though Li trains independently. The Chinese Olympic Committee and other agencies expressed “heartfelt congratulations” in a joint letter to the government’s Tennis Sports Management Center, according to the state Xinhua News Agency.
“There is no doubt this will encourage and inspire Chinese athletes in other fields to undergo hard training, strengthen their confidence, and make excellent achievements in the London 2012 Olympics,” said the letter.
Elsewhere in Asia, the victory was front-page news in Japan and Hong Kong, though tennis has only a small regional following and celebratory sentiment might be dampened by unease at China’s rising military might and a series of political strains with its neighbors.
In Japan, which Beijing sees as a rival for regional leadership, news media celebrated Li’s victory as an Asian first.
The giant Yomiuri newspaper ran a front-page photo of her with her trophy. “First from Asia,” said a headline in the Asahi newspaper.
In Hong Kong, the match was overshadowed in news coverage by commemorations Saturday of the anniversary of China’s June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Tens of thousands of people held candles aloft in a public park and laid a wreath at a makeshift memorial.
People involved in Asian tennis expressed hope the victory would boost the popularity of tennis. “This is very, very huge for all Asians,” said Ajay Pathak, vice president of the Philippine Tennis Association. “Before, parents tell their kids to go to other sports because Asians are small and there are few opportunities to go to the highest level.”
Thailand’s Paradorn, who became the highest-ranked Asian men’s player when he reached No. 9 in 2003, also expressed hope for more government support.
“I’m sure that a lot of Chinese kids will play tennis more because of her,” he said.
“She is undoubtedly the product of the Chinese government, which put a lot of budget and effort into sending her to international events,” he said. “If our government does the same, we will have a lot of good players as well.”
In Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own territory, Li’s victory was the top story in the newspaper United Daily News, under the headline, “In the French Women’s singles Li Na is Crowned Empress.”
In Singapore, the tabloid New Paper declared, “At Last! A grand slam champion from Asia.”
China is experiencing the second wave of Li fever this year, following her runner-up finish at the Australian Open that saw her dubbed “the pride of China” by the mainstream media.
The head of the Chinese tennis federation was quoted at the time as comparing Li to Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang, until now China’s best known international athletes.
In a microblog comment posted Sunday, Liu Xiang declared Li’s victory “amazing and marvelous.”
In China, tennis remains an elite sport, running far behind basketball, soccer, and others in popularity.
At the Green Bank Tennis Club on Beijing’s northern edge, fans gathered late Saturday to watch the match on a big-screen TV set up on a tennis court. “Throughout China’s history, people knew nothing of tennis. Now, we’re standing on the summit of the world game,” said Zhang Yueming, the club’s general manager.
Chen Jiaojiao, who said she is from Li’s home province of Hubei, called the win a huge boost of confidence for Chinese tennis. “She’s brought the country so much glory. She’s really incredible,” Chen said. ♦