Chinese state media proclaimed Li Na’s victory in the French Open on Saturday as the stuff of legends and miracles, elevating Asia’s first grand slam singles winner to near mythic status in a country where national glory and athletic feats are closely entwined.
A rare front page sports story in the Sunday edition of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, said the “China-red” clay court at Roland Garros symbolised a miraculous victory for the country.
“The girl from Hubei, Li Na, at the birthplace of the sport, has opened a new era in tennis for China and all of Asia,” it said, headlines effusive in describing Li as “bravely seizing” the French title, and “writing an Asian legend.”
The official English-language newspaper the China Daily said Li displayed an “all-conquering maturity” in her straight sets victory over holder Italy’s Francesca Schiavone.
It was a national and personal redemption for the widely adored 29-year-old after falling in the Australian Open final to Belgian Kim Clijsters in January.
By Sunday, nearly 2.1 million people were fans of Li’s twitter-like microblogging site on Sina’s Weibo and millions more were talking about her win. Xinhua news agency said 95 million viewers tuned in to watch the match on state television.
“It is quite a great honour, for her and the country,” said Liu Xiaolong, 34, a computer programmer from Beijing. “It will do a lot to help China break into the tennis world, which has for so long be dominated by Europe.”
For many young people in China, Li is a role model, partly because of her broad smile and off-court wit, but also due to her air of independence in a country where elite athletes’ careers are nurtured — and largely supervised — by the state.
The outspoken Li was permitted in 2009, along with four other top women players, to manage her own career and keep a greater share of her winnings after run-ins with Chinese tennis officialdom over training arrangements and pay.
Li, who was identified as a potential badminton talent as a child, was steered into tennis before her teenage years, but had to be coaxed back into the game in 2004 after walking away to study media at university.
As the country’s sometimes reluctant standard-bearer for tennis, her success is expected to fuel the sport’s rapid growth in China.
China Tennis Association chief Sun Jinfang said on Saturday that Li will help drive the sport forward in the country, still considered an elite game that lags behind basketball, soccer and table tennis in its draw on youth, Xinhua news agency reported.